If there's one team that had a reason to secede from its own division in 2013, it was the Arizona Cardinals. While the Chargers and Packers made the postseason with 9-7 and 8-7-1 records, respectively, and the Pack "won" their division with a minus-11 point differential, the Cards' reward for navigating the brutal NFC West and ending their season with a 10-6 mark was ... no more season. They were on the outside looking in, despite a plus-55 point differential, the NFL's 10th-best overall efficiency and the league's fourth-most difficult schedule.
Sometimes, life isn't fair. It certainly wasn't for an Arizona team that could have won at least three other divisions. Now, the Cards look to ascend in an NFC West populated by the Super Bowl champion Seahawks, the 49ers team that almost kept Seattle from that big game in the NFC Championship Game and a Rams team that looks tougher and more loaded overall after an outstanding draft.
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Last year's Cards team had the NFL's second-best defense overall, per Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, and first-year coordinator Todd Bowles did a great job with the talent he had on hand. Patrick Peterson expanded his reputation as one of the league's best pass defenders, veteran pass-rusher John Abraham put up 11.5 sacks at age 35 and rookie safety/slot cornerback Tyrann Mathieu charged into the league as a very exciting prospect. On offense, Carson Palmer threw for over 4,000 yards (he's the only player in league history to do that for three different teams), Larry Fitzgerald is still playing at a high level and Andre Ellington appears to be on the verge of becoming a bellwether running back.
There's a lot to like about this Cardinals team, but there'd be a lot more to like about it if it played in the NFC East or AFC South. General manager Steve Keim did his level best to enhance the roster with more playmakers and key pieces, but will it be enough to shoot his team past last year's two best squads?
Best acquisition: Jared Veldheer, LT
In 2013, the combination of Levi Brown and Bradley Sowell allowed 11 sacks, 18 quarterback hits, and 48 quarterback hurries at Arizona's left tackle slot. Sowell was a second-year undrafted free agent filling in for Brown, who must be seen as one of the NFL's more regrettable first-round picks of the last decade. The Cardinals traded Brown to Pittsburgh in October and tried to muddle through with Sowell in his place. Keim clearly saw the need for an upgrade and got lucky when Veldheer, Oakland's third-round pick in 2010, decided to bail from the Bay Area in free agency. He missed 11 games with a triceps injury but played very well from November on, giving up just one sack, no hits and 13 hurries in 335 snaps. That's consistent with his career consistency, and the Cards got a relative steal when they agreed to a five-year, $35 million contract with just $10.5 million guaranteed. For a player of Veldheer's caliber, that's just short of highway robbery.
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Biggest Loss(es): Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington, ILB
Arizona got even better in its defensive backfield with the acquisitions of first-round safety Deone Bucannon and free-agent cornerback Antonio Cromartie, but inside linebackers play a huge part in Bowles' pass-defense concepts, and that more than anywhere else is where the Cards figure to come up short in 2014. Dansby, who had a career year with 112 tackles, 6.0 sacks and four interceptions, took a four-year, $24 million contract from the Browns. Even at age 32, he's one of the very best coverage linebackers in the league. The Cards didn't seem too worried about that -- after all, they still had Daryl Washington, the 2010 second-round pick who is as freakishly athletic as anyone at his position. Washington can cover everything from the quick screen to the deep slant, but he won't be doing any of that in 2014 -- he was suspended for the entire upcoming season after multiple violations of the NFL's substance-abuse policies.
That leaves second-year linebacker Kevin Minter and veteran Larry Foote to fill those shoes, and it will not be an easy task at all. Minter, who barely played in his rookie campaign because Dansby and Washington were so good, is more of a straight-ahead tackling machine, as is Foote. Bowles will have his hands full in trying to replace those coverage advantages in the middle of the field.
Underrated draft pick: John Brown, WR/KR, Pittsburg State (Third round, 91st overall pick)
As the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians always wanted a smaller speed receiver for his extensive collection of trips and bunch packages. He had Antonio Brown with the Steelers and T.Y. Hilton with the Colts. Now, it appears that Brown could be that same type of player in Arizona. Brown received AP Little-America acclaim in each of the last three seasons as a receiver and return man, catching 61 passes for 1,198 yards and 14 touchdowns in his senior season. He also ran 17 times for 100 yards and averaged 32.4 yards per kick return. The 4.34 speed Brown displayed at the scouting combine shows up on the field.
“Fits the mold that B.A. [Arians] was looking for that he has talked to me about since the day that he has got here: fast, explosive, T.Y. Hilton-type of player, guy who can take the top off the defense, has dual return ability in the punt- and kick-return game,” Keim said of Brown in May. Expect to see Brown on the field a lot in 2014.
Looming question for training camp: Can Arizona's offense make up for any defensive regression?
Not only are Dansby and Washington out of the picture, but key defensive regulars Abraham, Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell aren't getting any younger. Cromartie could be a great addition, but he's also monumentally inconsistent, and Mathieu is still recovering from knee surgery. Arians has targeted Oct. 1 as Mathieu's ideal return date. Regression in this case seems inevitable, which raises the question: Who on the other side of the ball will pick up the slack? At quarterback, Palmer is what he is -- a stat collector who swings between good and bad too often, and although Ellington is a real spark plug, he'll need to show that he can maintain his production with more carries than the 118 he had last year. Arians has penciled Ellington in for 25-30 touches per game in the 2014 season, which would be a major increase. The receiver corps is solid, the offensive line has improved and Arians' reputation as an offensive mind and motivator is well-deserved. Still, as much as Keim has improved the team's depth over the last few years, it's hard to place the Cards in the playoffs in this Murderers' Row of a division. Maybe secession is the best plan, after all.