Cardinals look to contend behind Johnson, Palmer, Fitzgerald

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Maybe this is the last go-round for the aging Arizona Cardinals trio of Bruce Arians, Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald. At least one of them might call it quits after this season.

If it's their last year together, they are convinced they are part of a team with the talent to contend.

''I really like the looks of our squad,'' Arians said.

The 64-year-old coach is coming off a 7-8-1 year, the only losing record in his five seasons in Arizona.

The talent begins with David Johnson, perhaps the best and certainly the most versatile running back in the NFL.

''Like I've always said,'' Arians said, ''he's the closest thing I've been around since Marshall Faulk.''

Last year, in his second NFL season, Johnson led the league in yards from scrimmage (2,118) and touchdowns (20). He led all running backs with 879 yards receiving.

In 32 career games, Johnson has scored 33 touchdowns, a statistic that helps make him a fantasy football darling.

He was first-team All-Pro in the newly created ''flex'' position, and second team at running back. Johnson was the first player in NFL history to top 100 yards from scrimmage in each of the first 15 games of the season and probably would have made it 16 had he not hurt his knee in the finale in Los Angeles.

This year, the 2015 third-round draft pick out of Northern Iowa has set a lofty goal: topping 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving, something accomplished only by Faulk and Roger Craig.

''Most definitely a realistic, for-sure goal,'' Johnson said, ''just because I was so close last year and I feel like I have a lot more to improve.''

But as much as Johnson shines, the Cardinals' success will ultimately rest with how the 37-year-old Palmer performs behind a redesigned offensive line. Arians is consistently giving Palmer time off to rest his arm. After a poor first half to last season, Palmer rebounded in the final eight games.

''In football years, I think it's perceived once you get to 35 you're old,'' he said, ''but if you can still put it on every day and play and work out and train and prepare mentally, I look at is as being experienced and mature.''

Expectations weighed heavily on the Cardinals last year after they went 13-3 and made it to the NFC championship game in the 2015 season. The players seem to enjoy being away from that limelight as they prepare for the coming season.

Here are some things to watch on the 2017 Cardinals:

FITZ'S FINALE? Fitzgerald, who turned 34 last week, enters his 14th NFL season with statistics that already have cemented his Hall of Fame status. He ranks third in career receptions (1,125), ninth in yards receiving (14,389) and eighth in touchdowns (104). And he's still remarkably effective.

Last season, he led the NFL with 107 catches for 1,023 yards.

Whether this is his final season is anyone's guess. He has promised there would be no grand announcement, that he would just walk away.

If John Brown can keep away from illness and injury, he'll join steady Jaron Brown and speedy J.J. Nelson as the other chief passing targets.

THE O-LINE: The Cardinals moved D.J. Humphries from right tackle to left, shifting Jared Veldheer to right. Second-year player Evan Boehm is the new right guard. Mike Iupati and A.Q. Shipley remain at left guard and center, respectively.

They know their importance in clearing the way for Johnson and, most importantly, keeping Palmer upright.

''That's the main part of the offense, I feel,'' Humphries said, ''us keeping Carson in. We've got all the playmakers on the field, if we give them time, man.''

STRONG DEFENSE: With a healthy Tyrann Mathieu roaming the secondary, Patrick Peterson locking down the opponent's best receiver and a big pass rush off both edges from Chandler Jones and Markus Golden, the Cardinals believe they can be one of the better defenses in the league.

Robert Nkemdiche, last year's first-round draft pick, is being counted on to join the group of seasoned players up front to help ease the impact of the loss of Calais Campbell.

Inside linebacker Deone Bucannon missed the preseason recovering from ankle surgery, but should return to start alongside ageless Karlos Dansby, in his second stint with Arizona. Dansby, 35, was part of the Cardinals' 2008 Super Bowl team.

SPECIAL TEAMS: There appear to be significant upgrades to the Cardinals' special teams that were among the worst in the NFL last season.

Inconsistent kicker Chandler Catanzaro has been replaced by Phil Dawson, the 42-year-old 19-year NFL veteran who still has 50-yard plus range and a long history of consistency. And on the first day of practice this week, the team signed three-time All-Pro punter Andy Lee.

Lee, 35, was Dawson's holder for two years with San Francisco.

''I would hope they'd be a whole lot more consistent,'' Arians said, ''two veteran guys that have been through some big games, and I'm excited they're both on our team.''

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