The Cardinals seemed to be on a mission to prove that they were Super Bowl contenders from the kick off of the season. To start their season the Cardinals went 3-0 and were outscoring opponents 126-49. Losses in two of their next three caused some to sink back on them a little bit, especially when their first four wins, while blow outs, were against the Bears, Lions, Niners, and Saints. However, they went on to win their next nine in a row to get to 13-2 and had the entire world supporting the Cards as a Super Bowl favorite. Wins included at Seattle, as well as the Bengals, Packers and Vikings. The Cards lost their season finale to the Seahawks, but secured a first round bye, where things sort of fell apart for Carson Palmer. Palmer had thumb surgery after the season, and the hope will be if he is healthy, this team can be right back where they were.
Bruce Arians has been nothing but a success since his arrival in Arizona. The Cardinals have gone 34-14 since his arrival, and even better they have increased their win number by the year. Arians essentially has the control of the offense, and while many assumed that when Todd Bowles took the Jets job it would equal a big dip in the defense, James Bettcher was awesome in his first year as coordinator, and was very creative in his scheme and use of personnel. Overall there is not much to hate on as far as how the Cardinals are being run, and while it will be even tougher to increase in wins from 13, Bruce will certainly have his eyes set on 14.
Carson Palmer finished in second in the MVP and he certainly deserved it. However, for coming off a year of his status, he will certainly be facing more questions than expected. Palmer was awesome, and his 8.7 yards per attempt rate can be a lasting example of his great 16 game season. While it was a small sample size that number shrank to 4.9 yards in the playoffs. He also threw six interceptions in two games, and lost two fumbles. As mentioned, days after the season he endured thumb surgery, but some of those throws in the playoffs had to be on more than his thumb. At 36 just this year he got his first playoff win, it will be a major question to see how he stands up after basically costing his team in the NFC Championship. Drew Stanton has seen time as his backup due to injury in the past, but he isn’t a future starter, and there has even been speculation of drafting a development guy so that he can develop and eventually take over for Palmer.
Andre Ellington has the talent, but doesn’t have the body type to be a lead NFL back. He missed the majority of this season, heck he missed the majority of his career so far due to injury. He is blazing fast, and can catch and doesn’t back down to contact, but heading into 2016 the Cardinals will be using him in a change of pace role. Chris Johnson used 2015 to take over for the injured Ellington, and had a strong year compared to the last few of his career, but like Ellington ended up missing time late due to injury. This is when the Cardinals future starter David Johnson stepped in. Johnson has a lot of the skills as Ellington,but is physically bigger, and may be more talented in the pass game. Johnson has a bit of Matt Forte in him and compiled 13 touchdowns last year, 8 on the ground, 4 by air, and one via the return game. He bursted onto the scene late in his rookie year, and Chris Johnson is a free agent who more than likely wont be retained leaving the door wide open for David.
A lot of Palmer’s success can be backed by the amazing depth and talent that is in Arizona’s receiving core. Larry Fitzgerald had another amazing year and is already locked into first ballot hall of fame status. Away from catching over 100 balls from every position and all over the field, he is also now becoming, not the best blocking wide receiver in the league but one of the best blocking wide receivers of all time. There really just aren’t careers like Fitz, especially when you see one year left on his deal, but don’t even fret because he has admitted he plans to retire a Cardinal. While Fitz is the do everything guy, everyone else is a group of deep threats. John Brown and Michael Floyd had 15.5, and 16.3 yards per catch respectively as well as combining for 13 touchdowns. Brown is footwork and speed, Floyd is size and go get it ability. Combined they are dangerous with a guy like Fitz clearing space, and that is without mention of JJ Nelson who averaged 27.2 yards per catch on 27 catches, and Jaron Brown. Essentially they are five deep, with a hall of fame leader, and youth everywhere else. Nice place to be. It also makes tight end a bit of a non need, but I am sure they are hoping they don’t need to resign Jermaine Gresham, as Troy Niklas and Darren Fells are on the roster.
If the Cardinals were to upgrade the offense in the off-season it would be the offensive line, but more specifically should be at center. Mike Iupati went down in week 9 due to injury, but beforehand him and Jared Valdheer combined for one of the better left sides in the league. They will return both and the hope would be that the left side should be really good next year. While the left side has some bigger problems, there are potential in house solutions. Jonathan Cooper essentially lost his job last year but should get one more chance to start at left guard as Ted Larsen is a free agent. Arians mentioned he has faith in Cooper, as well as first round pick DJ Humphries to sure up the right side. Bobby Massie started at right tackle last year, but really isn’t too special, and Humphries should be ready after a year to start. At center is Lyle Sendlein who is probably the biggest liability on the line. Center should be their first offensive move this off-season no matter how they address it.
The big question this off-season will be how much Calais Campbell gets paid this year. He has one year left on his deal, but there is really no way the Cardinals want to go into the off-season with a chance that he may get away. Campbell is probably right behind JJ Watt, if not on Watt’s level as the top defensive ends in the game. He, like Watt can line up everywhere, and is just as good against the urn as the pass. The rest of the line is a group of veterans, which makes it somewhat of a position of need, mainly through the draft, but it certainly isn’t pressing, especially with a guy like Campbell leading the way.
In mentioning Bettcher and his creative schemes, the best thing he did was move Deone Bucannon to linebacker from safety to get him on the field more. Buchanan is a playmaker all over the field, with safety speed, but linebacker strength and ability. He will be a guy, with Campbell that this defense should build around. Daryl Washington hasn’t played in two years and will be cut by the Cards to clear cap, meaning that next to Buchannon is Kevin Minter. Minter is not poor, but he isn’t a difference maker. This will be interesting as he only has one year left on his deal, but there is little behind him, especially in the youth department.
They may pause in building behind Minter, because at the current moment, the OLB position is the one of biggest need. It is a problem when Dwight Freeney, who is 35 and cannot play a full game of snaps anymore but led the way with 8 sacks. Markus Golden, a second round rookie looks like he is rounding into form by recording 4 sacks, but Freeny is a free agent, and is probably debating retirement currently. Lamarr Woodley and Jason Babin will basically be forced into retirement, and that gives this team close to nothing at pass rusher. They will probably want to convince Freeny back, or a vet in a similar position, as well as draft for another young name to bring in across from Golden.
The secondary, like most of this defense, has big names at the top, but has work to do in establishing depth. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu are big time talents, arguably All-Pro candidate for the next five years. Matthieu, however, is coming off of his second ACL surgery, and to lose him again would be devastating for this defense. Beside Matthieu, they have talent in the secondary, but Rashad Johnson is a free agent who may seek attention. They also have Tony Jefferson who can fill in without Johnson, but he worked well with Johnson when the Cards went to Nickel, and Matthieu took on the slot. Therefore it would be a priority to bring back Johnson. That may mean choosing to sign him over Jerraud Powers. Powers wasn’t bad last year, but just isn’t a guy who must return. Justin Bethel had moments on the outside, but isn’t great. It would make drafting a corner somewhat important. Then the plan is just to hope Matthieu can keep this defense using the same schemes that he makes so easy to run.
Where do they go?
It sounds weird because they finished top five in efficiency but this team should work on defense. Specifically the pass rush, but depth across the whole will be needed. Without Matthieu the defense is a lot less scary, and with him returning from a devastating injury secondary help should be looked at as well as young talent to pair with Campbell on the line. With Matthieu, they do have Golden, Bucannon, Campbell and Peterson and that is a nice core to build around.