Cardinals camp setup: Desert question – down or under radar
GLENDALE, AZ -- There are two ways to look at the Arizona Cardinals as they prepare for the start of training camp and both sides are reasonable, matter-of-fact points of view that are hard to argue:
They are an unexcitable team coming off back-to-back, non-winning yawning seasons with a new head coach, three brand new quarterbacks and two new starting offensive linemen that features a rebuilt roster devoid of at least 18 players who were either full-time or part-time starters just a year ago.
But they also are a plausible, under-the-radar team that returns the core of one of the NFL's most reliable and highly-ranked defenses, one of the league's most versatile and explosive offensive weapons in running back David Johnson, has a young franchise quarterback at the ready in rookie Josh Rosen and has enough intangibles elsewhere to perhaps surprise.
The Cardinals will begin to start revealing exactly who they are when quarterbacks and rookies report to camp at University of Phoenix Stadium on July 23 and veterans report four days later on the 27th with the first full-team official workouts set to begin the following day.
Arizona won't get the preseason praise that surely will be heaped upon the Rams, the reigning NFC West champions. The Cardinals won't elicit the same fuss and fury being generated by the starkly improving 49ers. And in Seattle, they will never carry the same swag as the Seahawks. But out in the desert, first-year head coach Steve Wilks said there's still plenty to like and suggests his Cardinals could be primed to strike - at some point.
"The most important thing - and you guys will hear me talking about this throughout the year - is I'm going to keep the focus on us," he said. "When you really pull the layers back, we have a lot of great talent as well. Right now, we're flying below the radar and that's great. I like where we are and we're going to continue to stay there until the time is right."
Wilks, who replaced the retired Bruce Arians after spending the previous five seasons as an assistant coach with the Panthers, with whom he served as defensive coordinator in 2017, will need a lot of things to go right for his new team to emerge as a possible playoff contender for the first time in three years. It starts with several issues that still need to be resolved entering training camp.
One of the most obvious is Johnson's contract situation. The NFL's leader in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns scored in 2016, Johnson is in the final year of his rookie deal after missing 15 games last season with a fractured wrist. He wants a new multi-year deal that pays him among the league's elite and stayed away from the team's final minicamp in an attempt to try and gain some leverage.
If he fails to report by Aug. 7, however, Johnson will not be credited with an accrued season in 2018, meaning he won't be eligible for unrestricted free agency until 2020. If Johnson and his representatives want a restructured contract, they will have to play nice and see if they can't broker a reasonable deal by the end of the preseason.
Meanwhile, the offensive line needs to quickly establish some chemistry and continuity now that veteran free agents Justin Pugh and Andre Smith have joined the starting unit as Arizona's new right guard and right tackle, respectively. Their additions are viewed as a nice upgrade to the group, which needs to be exceptional in pass blocking if the Cardinals hope to keep new starting quarterback Sam Bradford upright and alive.
That's another huge concern as Bradford, 30, has been dealing with a bum left knee that his former head coach, Minnesota's Mike Zimmer, has termed "degenerative." Bradford has played a full season only twice in his first eight NFL seasons and because of his injury history, he was slow-walked into his transition with the Cardinals during offseason workouts.
Bradford enters camp as the starter, but lurking in the wings is the team's rookie first-round pick, Josh Rosen, whom the Cardinals selected 10th overall after swinging a deal with the Raiders to move up five spots in the draft. Rosen would have to leapfrog Mike Glennon on the depth chart to have a crack at being the No. 1 guy, but that seems like a given and Rosen's possible ascension to starter at some point in 2018 is not seen as a long shot at all.
"No, it's not," Wilks confirmed. "I talked about it from day one - the best 11 are going to play. Sam is the starter and when he's healthy, he's great. But everybody is competing to be out there on the field and competition is a good thing. It makes us all better."
Speaking of competition, veteran acquisition Jamar Taylor will have to hold off challenges from at least a few cornerbacks to win the starting job opposite Patrick Peterson, the No.2 wide receiver spot behind Larry Fitzgerald is still wide open and serious depth concerns remain at the linebacker and tight end positions.