Arizona Cardinals: What We've Learned This Offseason

Shaun Church@@NFLChurchContributor IMay 22, 2012

Arizona Cardinals: What We've Learned This Offseason

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    The Arizona Cardinals have had a relatively quiet offseason. No major splashes in free agency; no draft-day trades.

    Cardinals management has gone about their business as if the team is fresh off a division title. With so little change to the roster after an 8-8 finish, one would have to worry if general manager Rod Graves has lost his mind, right?

    Not so fast, my friend (in my best Lee Corso impersonation).

    Graves and head coach Ken Whisenhunt have played this offseason to the best of their collective ability, and this slideshow will highlight some of the key moments over the past five months that have led us to where we are right now and what we have learned from those events.

Signing Calais Campbell Long Term

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    On May 11, just over two months after Arizona placed the franchise tag on its big defensive end, the Cardinals officially announced Calais Campbell as the newest defensive player to be awarded for his contributions and hard work.

    “We’ve said many times our objective is to become a championship team both on and off the field,” Graves said during the official press conference. “And it starts with the core players.”

    Campbell is certainly among the core players about which Graves spoke.

    Originally taken by Arizona in the second round (No. 50 overall) of the 2008 draft, the 6’8”, 300-pound behemoth has developed into exactly what an organization wants from a player.

    Campbell spent his 25th birthday not celebrating with drinks at a club, not doing his own thing with family and friends. No, he celebrated by cooking dinner for people at a charity event hosted by the CRC Foundation.

    The CRC Foundation, a non-profit organization he co-founded, is named after his late father, Charles Campbell. Their goal is to help underprivileged children in a variety of different ways, ranging from accounting, writing and cooking to drug and alcohol awareness.

    On the field, he has become a young leader on a defense that has many older, more tenured leaders.

    His mix of youth and leadership provides the Cardinals with a voice on the field as they attempt to take over the NFC West. His eight sacks led all 3-4 defensive ends in 2011, and his 10 batted passes led all defensive linemen.

    He’s earned his five-year, $55 million contract.

    What Have We Learned?

    The message—though still in its infancy in Arizona—is clear: If you play like a star, you will be paid like a star.

    Campbell is not the first current member of the Cardinals’ roster to be awarded for his efforts. Last year, Arizona forked out a franchise-record eight-year, $128.5 million contract to its best ever player, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

    In 2010, defensive end Darnell Dockett was handed a six-year, $56 million deal following the second Pro Bowl campaign of his career (he also was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2011 and has been there three times).

    All-Pro safety Adrian Wilson received an extension of his own in 2009, signing a five-year $36.5 million contract.

    Arizona has made it a point to hand out a pay raise to at least one deserving player in four consecutive years. Who will it be in 2013?

Team’s Defensive MVP Signs with Miami

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    In his only season with Arizona, Richard Marshall became new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s MVP. That’s “most valuable,” and “most versatile.”

    Not for the absurd amount of tackles or interceptions he accumulated, but rather for his ability to learn three positions in a defensive scheme so complicated that it took some veterans the same allotment of time to learn one position.

    Marshall started the season as the slot corner after Greg Toler, a preseason starter, tore his ACL and forced rookie Patrick Peterson into the starting lineup. There’s one position.

    Then from Week 9 on—when A.J. Jefferson struggled to cover opposing receivers—he took over the outside starting role. Position No. 2.

    And in the middle of all that, starting free safety Kerry Rhodes went down with a broken foot during the Week 4 blowout loss at Minnesota. Who helped backup safety Rashad Johnson fill in for Rhodes? Yes, it was Marshall.

    “(Richard) allowed us, when Kerry (Rhodes) was hurt, to function with speed on the field,” Horton told “For me, he was my most valuable player, just with what he allowed us to do.”

    Three positions on a new team with a new scheme—and learning them on the fly because of the lockout-shortened offseason.

    The loss of Marshall to Miami has caused some fans to believe the team did not want him back. But don’t believe that for one second.

    It may be Marshall’s fault the Cardinals did not re-sign him.

    The NFL’s free-agency period began on March 13th. Marshall, eager to sign, flew into Miami that day to negotiate a deal with the Dolphins.

    He gave Arizona every opportunity to produce a counteroffer in order to keep him; however, the Cardinals did not match what Miami was offering, ultimately losing out on re-signing Marshall.

    How is that Marshall’s fault, you ask?

    As well as March 13th marking the beginning of free agency, it was also the day in which teams had to be in compliance with the salary cap.

    At the time, Arizona had zero wiggle room under the cap. The contract Marshall wanted—and deserved—was too expensive for the team to afford.

    If Marshall truly wanted to remain with the team, and was not in it for the money, he could easily have waited for some roster movement to occur so Arizona could better afford his services.

    They can afford him now, but he just couldn’t wait that long.

    What Have We Learned?

    Arizona was not about to break the bank for just any player, and Marshall was very good with the Cardinals in 2011.

    That, however, doesn’t take away the fact that the team could not afford him when he was ready to be paid.

    What we’ve learned here is that Richard Marshall, though deserving of the three-year, $16 million contract he signed, cares more about money than winning. Had he waited for a moment when the Cardinals could sign him without going over the cap, he could have been part of a rising defense on a rising team in a division just aching to be won.

    Instead, he took the money and ran to Miami—a black hole of a franchise that will fail in the AFC East as long as the Jets and Patriots are there.

The Offensive Line Situation

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    The well-documented sack total surrendered by the Cardinals’ offensive line in 2011 was reason to worry if you’re a fan.

    Conversely, what the team has done to bolster the front five since then should allow you to remove the paper bag from your face. Breathe easy; everything will be just fine.

    Beginning with free-agency, Arizona went out and signed Adam Snyder—the team’s only major free-agent signee.

    Snyder started all 18 games for San Francisco in 2011, helping the team finish the regular season at 13-3 and within one or two plays of making the Super Bowl.

    Moving on to the draft, the Cardinals waited, and waited and waited until the fourth round to take a lineman, leaving some fans with fists full of hair. That fourth-round pick, however, is no ordinary fourth-rounder.

    Bobby Massie started 29 consecutive games at right tackle at Mississippi—the only position he played while in college.

    Playing in the SEC, Massie saw some outstanding defensive play from teams, and from individuals within those teams.

    According to (h/t to Doug Farrar of the Shutdown Corner and B/R’s own Adam Odekirk), Massie led the SEC in 2011 with 102 knockdown—or pancake—blocks. He was also credited with the key block on all 12 of the team’s rushing touchdowns.

    That kind of production from a right tackle is uncommon, but is more than welcome in Arizona should he be that dominant in the NFL.

    Arizona also drafted guard Senio Kelemete and tackle Nate Potter in rounds five and seven, respectively. Potter may have the bigger upside in the league, but they both bring their own amount of youth and competition to the line, and that may prove to be very valuable in the future.

    Potter could eventually compete for the left tackle spot should Levi Brown regress.

    What Have We Learned?

    Drafting the best players available on the draft board is something new to Arizona management.

    In the past, the team would draft for need before anything else. You don’t have to look very far back to see that trend—Levi Brown.

    What the recent trend of quality-over-a-filled-hole means is that the roster is slowly being overtaken by better talent—at all positions, not just along the offensive line.

    Take, for example, the running backs.

    Ryan Williams was thought by some to be a first-round talent. He slipped to the top of Round 2, and not needing another running back at the time, the Cardinals made Williams their pick.

    Beanie Wells, Tim Hightower and LaRod Stephens-Howling were all on the roster and thought to be in firm control of the top three spots on the depth chart.

    Enter Williams, exit Hightower and the roster has just been upgraded.

    Another example is Arizona’s 2012 first-round pick, Michael Floyd. Yes, in many ways Arizona was in need of a receiver. But it wasn’t the greatest need—not in the eyes of draft experts anyway.

    Everyone with a mock draft was 100 percent certain the Arizona Cardinals would take a tackle with the No. 13 overall pick in 2012. Everyone, that is, but a few realists and the Cards themselves.

    Continuing down the draft path they have laid out, Arizona can only get better as the years go by.

    Now, with the Cardinals taking Massie in the fourth, Arizona has its starting right tackle for presumably the next decade. He may end up as one of the best value picks in franchise history, right up there with fellow fourth-round pick Sam Acho and 1997 seventh-round pick, DT Mark Smith. Smith didn’t play long in the NFL, but he racked up 18 sacks in four seasons with Arizona—in 46 games.

The Wide Receiver Dilemma

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    It’s no secret that other than Larry Fitzgerald, the wide receiver position for Arizona has been anything but consistent the past two years.

    Since dealing away Anquan Boldin following the 2009 season, the team’s No. 2 receivers have combined to average 652 yards receiving per season. While Boldin was in a Cardinals’ uniform, he averaged 1,074 yards per season. (Stats courtesy of ProFootballReference.)

    The drop-off has been in more than just receiving yards, however.

    The overall play of the No. 2 receiver has been far less physical than would normally be acceptable in Coach Whisenhunt’s offense.

    When free agency started, there were a plethora of good, young receivers with which the Cardinals could have at least negotiated. Guys like Pierre Garçon, Mario Manningham, Robert Meachem and Laurent Robinson all signed with new teams.

    The problem was—just like with Marshall—Arizona could not afford any of them.

    So, rather than reach for a tackle in the draft, like virtually every expert with a voice box insisted it should, Arizona did what it has done every year in recent memory: draft value.

    That value, as you all know, came in the form of former Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd. The 6’3”, 225-pound Floyd plays with tremendous physicality and toughness, and he should end up starting the season as the team’s No. 2 target.

    When that occurs, Arizona will have its one-two punch on the outside once again.

    His ability to get open all over the field will allow Fitzgerald more opportunities in one-on-one coverage. That, in turn, will do wonders for all aspects of Arizona’s offense.

    Andre Roberts, last year’s No. 2 receiver, will compete with Early Doucet for the No. 3 spot.

    What Have We Learned?

    As mentioned in the previous slide, drafting for biggest need is no longer protocol for Arizona.

    Working with Larry Fitzgerald, there will be a huge growth period for Floyd. The Cardinals’ offense will be the beneficiary, and as a result, the team gets better.

    We’ve learned that Roberts is not what GM Rod Graves and Coach Whisenhunt thought he could be. They are moving in a new direction at receiver, and though Roberts is still on the team and likely will start camp as the No. 2, his time is limited—just like his production.

Avoiding the Running Game

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    This offseason, Arizona has done nothing to add to the rushing attack that last year featured Beanie Wells’ first career 1,000-yard season.

    That’s not a bad thing, however.

    They get back Ryan Williams, 2011’s second-round pick, from a nasty knee injury. Williams was told by head athletic trainer Tom Reed that things could be different after his injury. Different, though, in a good way.

    “I asked Tom, and I trust Tom and I feel he will be honest with me, and I asked, ‘Do you think I will be 100 percent?’ He said, 'I feel you will be better than you were before.’“

    Better than he was before?

    If that’s the case, then not only will the Cardinals’ running game benefit—Wells better watch his back. If he is unable to recover in time from his own knee surgery, he may become a third-down back.

    Arizona recently signed the cousin of former Colts’ and Cardinals’ RB Edgerrin James. Javarris James, also a former running back for the Colts, is likely only a body to get the team through camp and preseason without having to overwork either Wells or Williams.

    What Have We Learned?

    Graves and Whisenhunt clearly believe in what they have in the running game.

    Wells and Williams—provided they stay healthy—could be one of the better tandems in all of football for years to come. Add in LaRod Stephens-Howling, and Arizona has one of the most dangerous three-headed monsters in the NFL.

    There’s the power of Wells, the speed and elusiveness of Stephens-Howling and a perfect combination of the two with Williams.

    It could be a “pick your poison” type of situation for opposing defenses this season and in the future.

    And that goes beyond the rushing attack.

    With Fitzgerald, Floyd, a young tight end in Rob Housler who's poised for a breakout year and an improving offensive line, the Cardinals’ offense could be set to take over the NFC West and beyond.

    Now, if they can just get one of the quarterbacks to take charge of the starting role.