With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
For much of the past decade, it would have been reasonable to look at the draft picks and shrewd personnel moves new general manager Steve Keim made this offseason and be bullish about the Cardinals’ chances of competing for an NFC West title. Not this year. In 2013, the NFC West is, by most accounts, the best division in football. Seattle and San Francisco are two of the league’s more promising Super Bowl contenders and the Rams made significant strides under Jeff Fisher last season. This division is good -- really good.
So while it may be tempting to peg Arizona for at least a few more victories than last season’s five-win campaign, divisional competition could prevent the Cardinals’ upgraded roster from moving up the standings. That said, Arizona did address needs at several key positions, traded for a former Pro Bowl quarterback and hired last season’s Coach of the Year for the same position.
There is significant change afoot in the desert, and even if it doesn’t result in a playoff berth or a division title this season, 2013 will be an interesting year for this group under the direction of a new head coach and quarterback. The prospectus is bright.
• Biggest storyline: Can Arizona develop a deep passing game?
When Arizona signed Larry Fitzgerald to an eight-year, $120 million contract two years ago, the message was clear: Fitzgerald would be the main focus of a dynamic deep passing game for years to come. Last season, when Arizona had a revolving door of quarterbacks ranging from plainly mediocre (Kevin Kolb) to downright awful (Brian Hoyer), Fitzgerald was effectively muted. Even the best wide receivers need consistent quarterback play to make an impact; in Kolb, Hoyer, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley, Fitzgerald had anything but.
The biggest hope in signing Carson Palmer this offseason was to re-establish the deep passing game that helped propel Arizona to a Super Bowl five years ago under Kurt Warner -- with second-year Notre Dame product Michael Floyd (or, less likely, Andre Roberts) serving as a rough facsimile of the No. 2 WR role filled by Anquan Boldin. Palmer’s two years in Oakland weren’t anything close to “elite,” but with an esteemed offensive-minded coach like Bruce Arians and one of the best wideouts in the league at his disposal, Palmer just might be able to recapture some of the success he enjoyed during his early years with Cincinnati.
• Most intriguing positional battle: Cornerback.
Installing a new quarterback and head coach weren’t the only major changes Arizona made this offseason. It will also replace most of a secondary that finished second in the league with 22 interceptions and helped the Cardinals rank fifth against the pass last season. Gone are William Gay, Adrian Wilson, Greg Toler and Kerry Rhodes. Standout Patrick Peterson is locked in at one cornerback spot, but the other side -- along with at least one safety spot -- remains up for grabs.
Newcomers Jerraud Powers and Antoine Cason are the frontrunners, but improved play from Javier Arenas, like we saw in Friday night's preseason win at Green Bay, could see him pass Cason on the depth chart. Quarterbacks will direct throws away from Peterson’s side of the field, so whoever wins the No. 2 cornerback spot will play a big role in determining whether Arizona’s revamped secondary excels.
The front seven should be vastly improved over last season’s charges, and is all but guaranteed to erase the memories of last season’s 28th-ranked rush defense. But the Cardinals risk becoming vulnerable through the air without a reliable second cornerback. Peterson can only lock down one side of the field, after all.
• New face, new place: Carson Palmer.
The idea of the old Carson Palmer -- the rocket-armed, unflappable pocket-passing prototype who made two Pro Bowls -- resurfacing in Arizona this season is probably a bit ambitious. Palmer is on the back end of his career, and while it’s not crazy to expect him to improve with better personnel and coaching than he ever had in Oakland, the most logical mindset with which to frame Palmer’s upcoming season is one of cautious optimism. Palmer simply isn’t the player he once was (the one who threw for 3,836 yards and posted a 101.1 quarterback rating in 2005) , and even if he is rejuvenated by the opportunity to lead a different franchise, it’s best to be mindful of his underwhelming two-year stint in Oakland.
The good news is, Palmer doesn’t have to be great. (Though his performance in Friday night’s win suggests he’s trending in that direction.) After last year’s regrettable quarterback charade, Arizona just needs some stability at the position. Palmer can provide that, at worst. At best, he can turn Arizona into one of the more dangerous passing offenses in the league.
• Impact rookie: Kevin Minter, linebacker.
The All-SEC first teamer was considered one of the draft’s bigger second-round “steals”; with his speed, aggressiveness and playmaking instincts, he was well worth a first-round selection. After solidifying the offensive line in the first round with North Carolina product Jonathan Cooper, a potential starter at guard, the Cardinals selected Minter -- a rangy, sideline-to-sideline playmaker -- ensuring that they ended up with two game-ready rookies in as many picks.
The linebacking corps, one of Arizona’s strongest position groups, will be shorthanded the first four games of the season while Daryl Washington serves a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. That should allow Minter to step in and play a large number of snaps right away. Though his playing time could decrease once Washington returns, Minter has a chance to leave a lasting impression early in his rookie season. New coordinator Todd Bowles is expected to install some 4-3 packages this season, and Minter’s versatility makes him amenable to all manner of defensive schemes.
With new additions Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley entering the mix, Arizona’s linebacking corps will be formidable whether or not Minter finds his way into the starting lineup. Few teams will have as intriguing a reserve option, and Minter -- particularly if he shines early in the season -- could climb the depth chart sooner rather than later.
• Looking at the schedule: Could be worse.
In this year’s brutal NFC West, every game will be an absolute grind, but the rest of the schedule is only slightly less daunting. Arizona draws the NFC and AFC South, which sets up difficult games against New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, Houston and Atlanta. Fortunately for Arizona, most of its toughest cross-divisional games come at home (Falcons, Colts, Texans), outside of a huge Week 3 test at New Orleans. Arguably the toughest stretch lies between Weeks 6 and 10, when Arizona will travel to San Francisco, take on Seattle and Atlanta at home, and play Houston after a Week 9 bye. Staying competitive in this division will require Arizona to spring at least a few home upsets out of division, and games against Detroit (Week 2), Carolina (Week 5) and Indianapolis (Week 12) are excellent opportunities. Of course, winning inside one's own division is even more important, but given the depth and quality of NFC West competition, asking for anything better than a .500 division record is unrealistic. Arizona isn’t one of the better teams in it’s division, but that doesn’t mean it can’t knock off a few of its easier non NFC-West opponents, defend home field and finish the year with anywhere between six to nine wins. After last season’s disaster, the baseline for improvement is as low as it’s been in years. Division strength aside, Arizona should be able to avoid backsliding from last season’s five-win total.