The hardest part is not knowing.
The Cardinals looked for all the world like a Super Bowl contender last season, carrying a 9–1 record and a three-game NFC West lead into late November. Unfortunately for them, along the way they lost starting quarterback Carson Palmer to a knee injury. His absence and a subsequent injury to backup Drew Stanton eventually knocked the wheels off.
Arizona dropped four of its final six regular-season games, including two to the rival Seahawks, who charged to a division crown at 12–4. With an overmatched Ryan Lindley under center, the Cardinals bowed out quietly in the playoffs with a 27–16 loss to the Panthers.
General managers spend the off-season trying to figure out how good their teams can be, but Arizona's Steve Keim first had to decipher just how close this team was.
“There is something special about this group and like I said before, that’s what I am going to miss most is this opportunity,” Palmer said after his injury setback. “It does not come along often.”
Would a healthy Palmer and a couple of roster tweaks be enough to finish the job they started in 2014? The Cardinals seem to think so.
Keim's most-discussed move this off-season came in reworking wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's deal to keep him around through 2016. The 31-year-old potential Hall of Famer again will pair with Michael Floyd in the passing game.
At least at first glance, the Cardinals do not appear to be asking too much of their rookies—first-round offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, second-round outside linebacker Markus Golden and third-round running back David Johnson all could push to start in camp, but none of them is being handed a starting job. Arizona was a touch more aggressive in free agency, landing ex-49ers guard Mike Iupati and veteran defenders LaMarr Woodley, Cory Redding, Corey Peters and Sean Weatherspoon.
The Cardinals' departures on defense could take their toll. Darnell Dockett, a 2004 Arizona draft pick, left for San Francisco following a season lost to injury. Two starters off last year's unit that ranked fifth in scoring, Antonio Cromartie and Dan Williams, also signed elsewhere.
Worst of all, though, could be the loss of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. The Jets' new head coach helped spearhead massive improvement over the past two seasons, with his attacking defense quickly becoming a signature of Bruce Arians's team.
“Todd’s going to be a guy we’re going to miss,” Keim said at the scouting combine. “Todd has a special and unique gift for taking players who may have certain limitations and putting them in position to succeed schematically. He understands how to mask some of their limitations while catering to their strengths.”
New defensive coordinator James Bettcher eventually could see a boost from the return of long-absent linebacker Daryl Washington, who was handed an indefinite suspension by the NFL last May. Bettcher and the Cardinals do believe they'll have better versions of cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson in 2015—Mathieu's play slipped in his second NFL season, while Peterson partially blamed his '14 drop-off on blood-sugar issues.
The Cardinals should be formidable again, if Palmer stays healthy and Bettcher succeeds. Keim's relatively quiet summer shows his trust in the status quo.
Best acquisition: Mike Iupati, G
Arizona's run game produced fewer than 100 yards in 10 of 16 regular-season games and sputtered again in the wild-card loss. Some of that can be attributed to teams loading up the box against a Palmer-less attack (although the Cardinals' two best rushing games came with Palmer out of the lineup), but the main issue was inadequate blocking up front.
Leading back Andre Ellington averaged just 3.3 yards on his 201 carries last season, for a grand total of 660 yards rushing. Stepfan Taylor produced at that same 3.3 yards per carry clip (208 yards on 63 attempts). Were it not for Kerwynn Williams's late-season emergence, Arizona might have finished dead last in the league on the ground instead of 31st.
Iupati will not fix things on his own, but his arrival cannot be understated. A three-time Pro Bowler and the 49ers' top run blocker last season, per Pro Football Focus's numbers, Iupati slots in as the Cardinals' starting left guard.
He and tackle Jared Veldheer form an intimidating tandem on that side of the line.
“They want to run the ball,” Iupati said at his introductory press conference. “Of course, we’ve got to pass the ball as well. Hopefully adding me will solidify the offensive line, and I think I have a lot to bring to the table.”
Arians actually would prefer to throw it when he can—the Cardinals attempted 568 passes to 397 runs last season. But a better balance would do wonders for all involved, and Iupati should help Arizona find it.
Biggest loss: Dan Williams, NT
Williams played 427 snaps last season, then signed a four-year, $25 million deal with the Raiders as a free agent. The numbers did not add up for an Arizona team struggling to stay under the salary cap.
Still, there is a reason Williams commanded as much attention as he did on the open market: He is a hulking presence along the defensive line and a stellar run-stuffer. Bowles relied heavily on Williams last season to clog the middle from his nose tackle spot.
The job in 2015 will fall, at least initially, to Corey Peters, flanked by Calais Campbell and Frostee Rucker on Arizona's three-man line. Peters is less of an immovable object than Williams, but he can be a more versatile chip. He certainly could handle snaps at one of the two defensive end positions if Bettcher trusts Alameda Ta'amu to rebound from a 2014 in which he barely played following an ACL injury. Undrafted rookie Xavier Johnson (6'2", 325 pounds) might be another option.
However, without a clear straight-up replacement for Williams, the Cardinals may wind up mixing and matching in the middle.
Underrated draft pick: David Johnson, RB
Back to the ground attack we go. Johnson was the seventh running back taken in this year's draft, behind the likes of stars like Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon. In round 3 alone, both Tevin Coleman (Falcons) and Duke Johnson (Browns) heard their names called before Johnson enjoyed his moment at No. 86.
Short of trading up for Gurley or Gordon in the first round, the Cardinals would have been hard-pressed to find a better fit for their needs. Johnson (6'1", 224) is a bigger back than Ellington. He's also a versatile threat—last season for Northern Iowa, Johnson rushed for 1,553 yards, finished second on the team with 38 receptions and averaged 36.5 yards on kick returns (including a 98-yard scamper).
This situation is ideal for Johnson, too. While talented, he would have had a difficult transition from FCS ball to a full-time starting job in the NFL. A committee with Ellington and others makes for a far less demanding introduction.
Johnson will contribute in 2015, perhaps as the preferred option out of the backfield.
Looming question for training camp: What will the starting linebacker group look like?
Let's assume that Alex Okafor has one OLB spot locked down. The 2013 draft pick led the Cardinals with 8.0 sacks last year, and Arians has spoken highly of him this off-season.
Where this defense goes from there remains up in the air.
Another 2013 selection, Kevin Minter, probably is a safe bet to be on the field when Arizona is in its base 3–4. The Cardinals have yet to see anything close to Minter's full potential, though—he played one snap as a rookie, and then a pectoral injury limited him last year. He's also a liability against the pass, so his leash may not be all that long.
Penciling in Okafor and Minter leaves one ILB and one OLB spot to be filled, with a collection of options for both positions. The Cardinals would prefer that veteran Sean Weatherspoon run with that inside position. The ex-Falcon missed nine games in 2013 and then was sidelined by an Achilles tear for all of '14, meaning he's a gamble. He was cleared last month for full participation in Arizona's off-season program, which was a critical step toward claiming a first-team position.
“Moving forward, I’m just looking forward to getting a new set of wings,” Weatherspoon told azcardinals.com's Darren Urban. “That’s kind of how I look at it. I’ve been a bird, but not a part of the Bird Gang. I’m definitely happy to be here and get a new set of wings and rejuvenate my career.”
Should Weatherspoon falter or fall to injury again, Kenny Demens or newcomer Darryl Sharpton would be next in line. That is, assuming Washington's suspension is not lifted between now and the regular season.
Go ahead and throw a dart for the remaining outside linebacker spot. Woodley, Golden and Lorenzo Alexander are the leading options for now, but don't rule out the possibility of a wild card emerging in August. For all of Bowles's creative scheming, the Cardinals mustered a mere 35 sacks last season, so finding more production off the edge is a must.