Thursday July 28th, 2016

The Cardinals clinched the NFC West on Dec. 20 last year, yet the postgame celebration was mixed with angst. In the fourth quarter, All-Pro defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who was in the midst of a monstrous career year, tore the ACL in his right knee, just two years after he toe the ACL and LCL in his left knee. Carson Palmer’s NFC Championship Game meltdown could have happened no matter who was on the active roster, but entering the postseason without Mathieu was an inherently tough blow.

Mathieu’s health is of upmost importance entering this preseason. His current ACL recovery is by all accounts more straightforward than his first injury. Still, concerns about his overall health will permeate Cardinals camp, especially with a massive contract extension expected in the coming weeks.

Mathieu is being cautious; he only wants to be “out there at 100%,” he told the Arizona Republic in May. When he is cleared to practice, how he cuts and runs should get a glaring spotlight. Despite a pretty stacked roster, the Cards need an effective Mathieu for most of the season if they want to progress past the NFC title game.

Projected Cardinals 2016 depth chart, from Fansided's Raising Zona

The Rookie: Defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche was revved up at OTAs. Physicality won’t be an issue for the 6' 4", 296 pound first-round pick, but can he grasp the playbook once the games begin?

Position Battle Spoilers: Mike Leach, the Cardinals’ long snapper for the past six years, retired this off-season. Two rookies—Kameron Canady and Danny Dillon—will compete for the starting job for this perennially underrated position. Unlike other positions where contract status or measurables give a particular player the edge, this will truly be a free-for-all.

The Stat: 43.2, Carson Palmer’s passer rating in a epically disastrous NFC Championship Game in which he threw four interceptions and lost two fumbles. While Palmer’s first appearance since that embarrassment will be fascinating, anything he does in the preseason and regular season will all be clouded with an obvious question: Can he avoid a meltdown in the playoffs?

Preseason Watchability Guide: The Cardinals start the preseason with an intriguing test against Palmer’s old team, the Raiders, who many believe are rapidly on the rise. They travel to San Diego and Houston in Weeks 2 and 3, then finish at home against the Broncos.

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