Examining Arizona Cardinals' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

Justin Onslow@@JustinOnslowNFLContributor IIJuly 30, 2013

Examining Arizona Cardinals' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

0 of 7

    The Arizona Cardinals picked a bad year to build up from the bottom.

    Following a 5-11 campaign a season ago, it was clear the Cardinals would need to make some major changes this offseason. Unfortunately, dominance has shifted in the NFC West, and Arizona faces an uphill battle to regain its place atop the division.

    The Cardinals got off to a good start this offseason, though, first with the dismissals of head coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves.

    The duo experienced plenty of success in their formative years with the organization, but a perfect storm of injuries and underperformance sent the Cardinals spinning out of control last season. The only option was a rebuild, starting with the men at the top of the pyramid.

    To replace Whisenhunt, Arizona brought in another former Pittsburgh Steelers staple Bruce Arians, who spent last season as the interim head coach of the Indianapolis Colts in Chuck Pagano’s stead. Arians was tremendous in that role, leading the Colts to what would be a magnificent bounce-back season with Peyton Manning no longer at the helm.

    With Graves’ exit, the Cardinals also needed to find a new personnel man who would work to infuse some talent into a roster already laden with skill, experience and potential. They found the right fit in Steve Keim, whom the team promoted after 14 seasons in various front office positions, the last of which as Vice President of Player Personnel.

    Keim went to work this offseason to prove he was ready for the job, putting together a terrific NFL draft class and making a splash on the free-agent market with a number of key acquisitions.

    The biggest of those moves was in trading for former Oakland Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer. After a season that saw Kevin Kolb miss 10 games as Ryan Lindley and John Skelton failed to pick up the slack, it was clear the Cardinals needed a stop-gap option under center.

    Palmer had has a whirlwind career since his first few seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, but he’s a better option than any player Arizona put under center last season. With Palmer controlling the reins of the offense, the Cardinals should be a much more explosive team in 2013.

    Keim also signed former Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall to go along with two rookie running backs selected in the 2013 draft. Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams struggled to stay healthy in the No. 1 running back role, and the Cardinals needed to find some talent to fill the void, especially with Wells now a free agent.

    The first-year GM went to work on the defensive side of the ball as well, signing a bevy of veteran free agents in safety Yeremiah Bell, cornerback Antoine Cason, linebacker Karlos Dansby, cornerback Jerraud Powers and pass-rusher John Abraham.

    Arizona lost a lot of talent on both sides of the ball this offseason, but it more than made up for those departures via free agency and the draft.

    We’ll examine many of those offseason moves in the following slideshow, as well as some positions to keep an eye on and a look at the 2013 schedule. Read on.

2013 NFL Draft

1 of 7

    Round 1 (Pick 7): G Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina

    Round 2 (Pick 45): LB Kevin Minter, LSU

    Round 3 (Pick 69): CB Tyrann Mathieu, LSU

    Round 4 (Pick 103): DE/OLB Alex Okafor, Texas

    Round 4 (Pick 116): G Earl Watford, James Madison

    Round 5 (Pick 140): RB Stepfan Taylor, Stanford

    Round 6 (Pick 174): WR Ryan Swope, Texas A&M

    Round 6 (Pick 187): RB Andre Ellington, Clemson

    Round 7 (Pick 219): TE D.C. Jefferson, Rutgers

    Grade: B

    The Cardinals’ offensive line was a mess last season, and it was a forgone conclusion that Steve Keim would look to address the unit with the seventh pick in the draft.

    Unfortunately, the team’s biggest offensive line need was already picked apart at the top of the draft with the selections of offensive tackles Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson. As such, Keim opted for perhaps the best guard to come out of college in the last five years in North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper.

    Arizona had other holes to fill, but it certainly needed to focus on bolstering its offensive line this offseason. After waiting until the fourth round to select an offensive lineman last year (tackle Bobby Massie), Keim learned from the mistakes of his predecessors and locked up the best remaining lineman at No. 7.

    The merits of selecting an interior lineman so early in the draft are debatable, but the new rookie wage scale outlined in the NFL collective bargaining agreement makes such a venture a lot more financially manageable. If Cooper is as good as many expect, selecting him at No. 7 may prove to be a steal.

    Even if Keim neglected value in the first round, he more than made up for it in the ensuing rounds with inside linebacker Kevin Minter and cornerback Tyrann Mathieu.

    Minter was widely regarded as a first-round prospect entering the draft, and his descent into the second round was a tremendous opportunity for Keim to replace some of his team’s departing talent at the linebacker position. Minter has some shortcomings in coverage, but he was arguably one of the best run stuffers in the entire draft class.

    Mathieu’s off-field issues were well-documented, but the Cardinals chose to take a chance on his talent in the hopes that the young cornerback would learn from his mistakes and use his potential to make the team better. It remains to be seen if Mathieu can stay out of trouble, but he has the talent to be a terrific NFL pass defender and returner.

    Perhaps the best value selection Keim made was in the fourth round in Texas pass-rusher Alex Okafor—a player many believed had a chance to jump into the first round given his blend of size and athleticism. Okafor didn’t impress in his predraft workouts—and he’ll likely have to adjust to an outside linebacker role in Arizona’s three-man front—but the potential is there for Okafor to be a solid NFL pass-rusher.

    Given the injury histories of Ryan Williams and Rashard Mendenhall, Keim also made wise decisions in the selections of Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor, each of whom could see considerable action this season behind Williams and Mendenhall.

    Keim missed on Texas A&M receiver Ryan Swope in the sixth round, but it would have been impossible for the new GM to predict that the speedster would hang up his spikes before ever having played a down in the NFL.

    As noted by Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com, Swope retired last week due to his history of concussions.

    A sixth-round pick won’t define Keim’s draft, though. In all, it was a strong effort from the first-year GM, giving the Cardinals a solid foundation of young talent on which to build going forward.

Line Dancing

2 of 7

    The Cardinals’ offensive line surrendered 58 sacks last year and saw two quarterbacks go down as a result. While injuries certainly played a part in the unit’s futility last season, new offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin realized it was time for a change.

    As quoted by Josh Weinfuss of AZCardinals.com, Goodwin emphasized the importance of making changes with Carson Palmer now under center:

    Anytime that you go through a season these guys went through last year, obviously there’s going to be some change. And obviously we want the best five guys out there to protect the quarterback especially that we have (quarterback) Carson (Palmer) now. The biggest thing I would say about last year, there were a lot of injuries, which happens around the league. The next man up has got to be the issue no matter who goes down or who’s in.

    Arizona will have some added depth to facilitate additional stability this season, though. With Levi Brown returning after missing last season and veteran right tackle Eric Winston having signed with the team last week, the tackle position should be much stronger than its 2012 incarnation.

    Per Weinfuss, Brown has been practicing at left tackle and Winston at right tackle in the first-team offense, but Nate Potter and Bobby Massie are both vying for a starting role and Bruce Arians isn’t prepared to name a starter, especially at the right tackle position: “I feel very comfortable right now that we’ll come out with a really good right tackle and a really good backup.”

    Regardless of the eventual starters at tackle (and Brown really should be a lock at left tackle if he is healthy), the Cardinals will be working with some depth they didn’t have last season. Adding Winston’s veteran presence was a huge boost, especially if Brown fails to make a full recovery this season and Massie doesn’t continue building on his second-half improvement from a year ago.

    Lyle Sendlein will return to the starting center role in 2013 after anchoring the line last season. Arguably the team’s most consistent blocker, Sendlein is in no danger of losing his starting spot short of injury, especially with limited experience behind him on the depth chart.

    The guard positions should also be much stronger this season as first-rounder Jonathan Cooper assumes the left guard role and Daryn Colledge slides over to the right side.

    Cooper’s mix of size, quickness and solid technique make him an ideal fit at left guard between Brown and Sendlein, and while Colledge will have to adjust to playing on the right side, his seven years of NFL experience should make that move a smooth transition.

    New addition Chilo Rachal will likely be the odd man out on the interior line, but he too provides significant depth at the position. With a solid rotation of tackles and at least three serviceable guards, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Arizona’s offensive line perform much better in front of Palmer and Rashard Mendenhall this year.

    It remains to be seen how the mix of new faces and returning starters will impact the unit’s chemistry, but there really wasn't much to start with after a tumultuous 2012 campaign. Starting from bottom, the Cardinals’ offensive line has nowhere to go but up.

Fresh Faces at Running Back

3 of 7

    By all indications, Rashard Mendenhall should be the day one starter in the Cardinals' backfield.

    Arizona inked the embattled former Pittsburgh back to a one-year deal this offseason, replacing Beanie Wells and giving the Cardinals another starting option should Ryan Williams end up on the shelf yet again. Mendenhall is coming off an ACL tear in 2011 and a turbulent 2012 campaign in Pittsburgh, but he’s already looking like the feature back the Cardinals were missing last season.

    Per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, Bruce Arians admitted Mendenhall would be the starter were the season to start today and cited his previous experience coaching the 25-year-old back with the Steelers:

    Rashard is just 25 years old. He took me personally to a Super Bowl, and I know what he can bring to the table as a runner and a pass protector and also a receiver. He's an every-down player. And I think he's looking forward to having an outstanding season.

    Williams may still get his chance, but as Wesseling noted, the Virginia Tech product had a “flare-up” at practice on Sunday and will seek a second opinion on the knee he injured in 2011.

    Williams has played in just five games since being drafted in the second round in 2011, and if he continues to find himself on the shelf, Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor could be in line for considerable playing time this season.

    Alfonso Smith has no impact on the offense last season, and shouldn’t be expected to play a big part this year as well. Unless Taylor and Ellington prove they aren’t ready for action in their rookie season, Smith could find himself at the bottom of the running back depth chart.

    Assuming Williams remains healthy enough to split time with the versatile Mendenhall, Taylor and Ellington will have a chance to ease into the speed of the NFL game while potentially playing a part on third downs and special teams.

    At 5’9” and 214 pounds, Taylor is a well-rounded back with a low center of gravity and enough mass to be a short-yardage back early in his career. He isn’t especially fast (4.76 40-yard dash), but he’s a true north-south runner who can do a lot of damage in the box.

    Ellington (5’9”, 199 pounds) is a much shiftier option who has enough straight-line speed and lateral quickness to provide some flash to Mendenhall’s smash. Unfortunately for Ellington, his pass-protection skills may limit Arians’ willingness to play the speedy back in third-down situations.

    There’s a lot of uncertainty at the position given the injury histories of Mendenhall and Williams and the shortcomings of Taylor and Ellington, but this much is sure: The Cardinals have a lot more depth to work with this season, and there’s some potential for a much stronger corps of running backs in 2013.

Looking at Linebackers

4 of 7

    Ray Horton did a lot of good things with the Cardinals’ linebackers in recent years, but with Whisenhunt’s departure, the defensive coordinator was handed his walking papers, later to join the Cleveland Browns in the same position.

    New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will now be tasked with getting the most of his linebackers following the departures of inside linebackers Stewart Bradley and Paris Lenon. Additionally, 2010 second-rounder Daryl Washington is “walking a very thin line” according to Bruce Arians as he faces assault charges on top of a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, per Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk:

    Well, it’s all up to him. He’s had double incidents and, as an organization, that throws a red flag up. But I think Daryl is a very bright young man who understands the mistakes he’s made and he’s walking a very thin line in the league right now. Super talented, but you have to adhere to the rules.

    Washington has been tremendous in his first three NFL seasons, recording 319 tackles and 15 sacks in that span. The 26-year-old is a crucial part of the team’s defense, but he won’t provide any production this season if he can’t get on the field.

    The Cardinals have plenty of depth to augment his absence, however. Signing Karlos Dansby will be a huge boost of veteran leadership to the position, while second-rounder Kevin Minter stands to earn some immediate playing time in various defensive roles should Washington miss additional time.

    Arizona also boasts solid depth at the outside linebacker positions with the additions of fourth-rounder Alex Okafor and former Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Abraham, both of whom will be transitioning to the position after playing predominantly on the defensive line.

    Abraham isn’t just a pass-rusher, but he’s extremely gifted at rushing off the edge from various positions. The 35-year-old veteran has recorded 122 sacks in his 13 NFL seasons, and the Cardinals were lucky to find that kind of production on the open market, regardless of Abraham’s transition to a new spot on the defense.

    Neither player is likely to garner starting attention from day one, however.

    Sam Acho will again start at right outside linebacker after recording four sacks a season ago, and Lorenzo Alexander is in line for the starting spot opposite him. While neither player is a particularly exciting option, Bowles’ new defensive scheme serves to benefit both players, as well as Okafor and Abraham.

    As quoted by Dave Dulberg of ArizonaSports.com, Acho is excited about the new defense that will feature some 4-3 looks—an ever-evolving trend for modern NFL defensive fronts:

    There's a lot of creativity. Coach Horton was awesome, but we're loving Coach Bowles' defense. We're making a lot of plays in it. They're similar in some regards, because we have to do a lot of 3-4. But we also have a little bit of a 4-3 off of it, so that's probably the biggest difference, working in the 4-3 off of our 3-4 scheme.

    Acho and Okafor both played defensive end at Texas, and neither player should have trouble adjusting to the 4-3 elements of Bowles’ defense. Similarly, Abraham should find a good fit in the scheme as a primary pass-rusher and third-down edge-rusher.

    Two-gap 3-4 fronts are predicated on pressure from their linebackers, and Arians saw the system run to perfection in Pittsburgh. Bowles has big shoes to fill, but he has the personnel to make it work in Arizona this season.

The Secondary Shuffle

5 of 7

    Arizona fielded a solid secondary in 2012, but it lost a lot in free agency, including both starting safeties in Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes.

    The safety duo was among the best in the league, but the Cardinals weren’t willing to pay either player going forward. Wilson ended up in New England while Rhodes remains on the free-agent market.

    To replace the pair, Steve Keim brought in veteran safety Yeremiah Bell and will likely expect 2009 third-rounder Rashad Johnson to start opposite him, per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com:

    Yeremiah Bell, Rashad Johnson will hold down safety. Mathieu in dime RT @maximilien03: @RapSheet They've got @Mathieu_Era so they're fine ;)

    — Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) July 28, 2013

    As Rapoport also noted, rookie Tyrann Mathieu is expected to start in sub packages behind Arizona’s top three corners in Patrick Peterson, Antoine Cason and Jerraud Powers.

    Peterson is an All-Pro corner who solidifies the entire secondary, but Cason and Powers will be major question marks entering the 2013 season after disappointing 2012 campaigns. Cason was victimized in San Diego last year and Powers ranked 55th among all cornerbacks last season in Indianapolis, per AdvancedNFLStats.com.

    A strong pass rush can mask inconsistency in the secondary, but there’s no denying the uncertainty facing defensive backs coach Nick Rapone as he prepares his depth chart for the 2013 campaign.

    While Arizona added plenty of depth to its linebacker corps, the secondary is without a lot of quality depth entering the season. There is certainly room for some surprises, but the entire defensive backfield will be worth keeping an eye on against an NFC West loaded with talented receivers and tight ends.

2013 Schedule

6 of 7
    2013 Arizona Cardinals Schedule
    WeekDateOpponentTime (ET)TV
    1Sept. 8at St. Louis Rams4:25 p.m.FOX
    2Sept. 15vs. Detroit Lions4:05 p.m.FOX
    3Sept. 22at New Orleans Saints1 p.m.FOX
    4Sept. 29at Tampa Bay Buccaneers1 p.m.FOX
    5Oct. 6vs. Carolina Panthers4:05 p.m.FOX
    6Oct. 13at San Francisco 49ers4:25 p.m.FOX
    7Oct. 17vs. Seattle Seahawks8:25 p.m.NFL Network
    8Oct. 27vs. Atlanta Falcons4:25 p.m.FOX
    9Nov. 3BYE WEEK
    10Nov. 10vs. Houston Texans4:25 p.m.CBS
    11Nov. 17at Jacksonville Jaguars1 p.m.FOX
    12Nov. 24vs. Indianapolis Colts4:05 p.m.CBS
    13Dec. 1at Philadelphia Eagles1 p.m.FOX
    14Dec. 8vs. St. Louis Rams4:25 p.m.FOX
    15Dec. 15at Tennessee Titans1 p.m.FOX
    16Dec. 22at Seattle Seahawks4:05 p.m.FOX
    17Dec. 29vs. San Francisco 49ers4:25 p.m.FOX

    *For a complete look at Arizona's 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.

Season Outlook

7 of 7

    The Cardinals are going to be better in 2013. It’s just hard to predict how much improvement they have actually made in one offseason.

    Adding Carson Palmer was a huge boost given the futility at the quarterback position last season. Palmer may not be the same quarterback he was in his formative years with Cincinnati, but he’s in position to put together a strong campaign in 2013—especially with one of the league’s best receivers in the fold.

    Larry Fitzgerald had a disappointing season in 2012, but it had nothing to do with his talent. Fitzgerald suffered from atrocious quarterback play from signal-callers who couldn’t get the ball downfield. With Palmer at the helm, this year should be a different story.

    Fitzgerald is joined by Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd as the team’s top receiving targets, and all three could be primed for a much better season in 2013. As long as Palmer remains under center and Arizona’s offensive line finds its rhythm, there’s virtually no chance the Cardinals finish 28th in passing again this season.

    Arizona’s running game remains a question mark, but there’s reason to be hopeful for significant improvement with Mendenhall in the fold. Along with a solid pass rush and one of the league’s best front three, there are few areas of major concern entering this season.

    And of course, changes to its coaching staff have the potential to make Arizona a much more stable team as well.

    Arians won the coach of the year award for his work in relief of Chuck Pagano last year, and he seems prepared to lead a team of his own. The rest of his coaching staff has a lot to prove, but again, there’s reason to be hopeful.

    Prediction: 8-8, Fourth in NFC West

    As positive as many of the team’s offseason changes were, there’s still the matter of traversing a loaded NFC West division.

    The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are the clear favorites to win the division, and the St. Louis Rams aren’t in bad shape either. Arizona will be better this year, but it has a tremendously difficult schedule to contend with.

    Along with six games against divisional opponents, the Cardinals also face off with the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans this season. Few games on the 2013 slate should be considered easily winnable affairs.

    Realistically, Arizona could win between seven and 11 games this year, but its schedule suggests a finish at the lower end of that spectrum. Look for marked improvement in several facets, but it may not be enough to break through the barrier in the NFC West for a division title and a playoff appearance.