We’ve reached the final day of OTA’s for the Arizona Cardinals and there’s a lot of questions, storylines and intrigue already.
With mini-camp starting this week, what are, in order, the biggest storylines for the team this season? Let’s take a look and count them down.
Honorable Mention: Bruce Arians’ health
No one was really talking about Arians’ health as a story at all last year. Then Arians went to the hospital twice in one season, once for diverticulitis and once for chest pains that came back “negative” and were reportedly due to a lack of rest.
I have it currently in a separate category from the rest of the stories as we’ve heard nothing on his health, but if something does pop up again and Arians has to take another hospital visit it might be a story that defines the 2017 Arizona Cardinals...and maybe the next few years as well.
Anyhow, for now, Arians’ health is on the back-burner until otherwise noted.
Let’s take a look at the players:
15. Budding Beginner Budda Baker’s Impact
Baker’s already had a few highlight reel plays as a rookie. Can he step up and help replace the loss of Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger as an NFL newcomer?
If Baker can land a job as a starter (which is possible) and see time in the nickel, he and Reddick have a chance to be two rookie starters on Arizona’s defense.
Tyvon Branch might be worth mentioning here, as he’ll likely start ahead of Baker to begin....but he has to prove he can stay healthy as he never has. In any case, I’d expect Baker to get a lot of playing time this season.
14. Who’s TE2 on the team....or do they have one?
Jermaine Gresham signed a (pretty sizeable) deal in the offseason to remain with the team, and he earned it as the teams consistent #3 receiver last year when the wide receivers didn’t step up.
But with Darren Fells departing, Ifeyani Momah coming off an injury (and being more of a receiver than a blocker) the current #2 tight end Troy Niklas has never been healthy. It’s a concern, certainly, but with the way Arians uses his tight ends, perhaps not as big of one as some of the other concerns on this list.
13. Who’s the backup RB to David Johnson?
Right now, Kerwynn Williams. Elijah Penny, newcomer T.J. Logan will get opportunities but for now it’s the Kerwynn show. Williams has always seemed like a natural fit in Arians’ offense with his inside-out running style and even had a wildcat package that scored with big plays in a few games.
But where Kerwynn is lacking is in the pass and pass-protection game, which is an area of strength for T.J. Logan. And don’t count out Penny being a bruiser. All in all, it’s David Johnson’s job to lose. But if he gets hurt, will the guys behind him be able to step up enough?
12. Is Patrick Peterson going to stick at punt returner, or will a challenger approach?
Ever since the Cardinals drafted Patrick Peterson, they’ve been unable to find anyone better as a punt returner.
Which is both good....but can be bad as Peterson’s so valuable on defense. Can a T.J. Logan or a John Brown do enough where Peterson’s role can be relaxed some to keep him safe from extra hits?
11. Special(er) Teams: can they improve from last year’s dreadful performance?
Last year the Cardinals weren’t great, plain and simple. And it all started with poor special teams play and lasted throughout the year with missed kicks, bad snaps, terrible kick coverage and all seemingly in critical moments.
Phil Dawson has been as consistent as they come the last few years, but he’s getting long in the tooth, and Matt Wile is currently the starting punter with a rookie as the kick returner.
Will the returning special teams players (from injury) and new faces show a marked improvement in minicamp to trust them?
10. Can Larry Fitzgerald stay fresh enough to get to #3 overall in yards receiving?
Fitzgerald’s body wore down some last year, but he’s been the epitome of health for the Arizona Cardinals in his career. If he can reach 905 yards, he’ll be the 3rd overall receiver in yards only behind Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens. Fitz lead the entire NFL in receptions last year but clearly wore down due to overuse. Can he stay fresh enough his offseason to become #3?
Well, I sure wouldn’t bet against him.
Not on your life.
9. The backups...and the QB of the future? Stanton vs. Gabbert: The Battle(?)
Look, I don’t think Blaine Gabbert will be good in his time in Arizona, but when you have an aging Drew Stanton (who has won games but struggled with accuracy) and are unable to land a quarterback of the future, a reclamation project like Gabbert is what you have to choose from.
If Palmer retires at the end of this year, it’s unlikely that the Cardinals will be in place to draft a highly touted rookie if they see success in-season. And it’s unlikely that Arians’ complex offense will be picked up on by a newcomer or rookie anyway, so Stanton and/or Gabbert very possibly could be the guy for 2018.
Which is kinda scary..
But anyway, their battle and how they look will be something to watch for the preseason and maybe beyond this year.
My guess? If Gabbert shows enough, AZ keeps three QB’s next year to hedge their bets if they can’t re-sign Stanton.
8. The Deep and Wide Wide Receiver room
I would guess that the Cardinals currently have these players as “locks” to make the team as wide receivers: Fitz, John Brown, Chad Williams, J.J. Nelson, and Jaron Brown. Each is pretty easy to see why they aren’t going anywhere based on their play, new contracts or being a 3rd round rookie selection.
If Keim and Arians choose to keep 6 WR’s, that means they have 8 players (at least) fighting for one roster spot, including RB-to-WR transfer Andre Ellington. That’s gonna mean that if a guy wants to make the team and not the practice squad, they’ll have to play like they’re on fire daily.
7. DE to ILB Haason Reddick filling in for Deone Bucannon
If Bucannon’s recovery takes a bit long, it’s possible Reddick is your starter to begin the season. The man has played every position from corner to defensive end and now is learning how to play ILB.
He has the athleticism to do it, but no one estimated he’d have to potentially step up so quickly. Watching his development will be one of the biggest stories for Arizona as they try to find a first-round player who can make an instant impact for the first time in 3 years, especially if Bucannon isn’t ready for Week 1.
6. John Brown 2: With A Vengeance
John Brown didn’t look himself last year. And with a sickle-cell and spinal cyst diagnosis, it’s no wonder.
If he can return to his 2014-15 form where he was nearly uncoverable, Cardinals fans could be in for a treat this season. He’s also in a contract year for extra motivation. We all know how that turned out for Michael Floyd. Can John Brown’s return to form will the Cardinals offense back to life? If so, he might be in for a big payday.
5. Healthy (?) Honey Badger
This might be the top story on the Cardinals defense this year, if not for a certain OTHER position that we’ll get to in a moment. Tyrann Mathieu revolutionized the league in his rookie year and in 2015, but has been slow to recover in both the following seasons. He’s also put on extra muscle this year and is doing what he can to stay healthy.
Will it be enough? Patrick Peterson didn’t sound 100% convinced he could in a radio interview recently, and after having these injury-riddled seasons, comparisons to Bob Sanders have sprouted up. If Mathieu can return to his dominant self AND stay healthy, it could mean he becomes the franchise cornerstone the Cardinals envisioned he became. If he can’t...it might be one of those “what could have been” situations for the small hybrid player.
Cardinals fans need to hope that the Badger, like John Brown, is back.
4. Can Bethel or Williams step it up, at last?
I debated putting this one higher, but the fact that Steve Keim was so easily able to find a solid #2 cornerback on the cheap a week into the season (after losing 2 other veterans to injury) shows that it can be done.
The hope is that it doesn’t have to be.
Bethel has disappointed since he signed his new deal, and he even admitted as much. He ripped up his extension with the Cardinals, taking a pay cut but is now entering a contract year. He’s finally right in his foot, but will that be enough to play on the outside after he’s been burned so badly?
Likewise, Brandon Williams’ development this offseason will be likewise huge. He was the talk of the NFL for a few weeks in training camp, and Gil Brandt even said that he looked like “the best defensive rookie of any player in any camp I want to.”
Aaaaaand that all disappeared in Week 1 as everyone realized how far Williams had to go. If the Cardinals are going to have any success this year, much less against Seattle’s speedy and technical wideouts, you’re going to want to hope for solid play from these two. And what Arizona’s seen so far has been consistent struggling.
Because if Keim has to scramble AGAIN to find a corner across from Patrick Peterson that isn’t one of these two players...it might already be too late for the Cards.
3. Replacing Calais: Nkemdiche and Gunter
This will be the first time since 2008 that the Arizona Cardinals won’t have #93 lining up to rush the Quarterback. It’s a little sad for most fans.
Fortunately, they have Karlos Dansby back to ease some of that pain, as well as a new #90 to try out.
Robert Nkemdiche was given much in his selection by the Cardinals, and he has much to prove (especially with several of the players at his position taken after him already having successful rookies seasons). He may very well be the key to the Cardinals pass-rush dominance similar to how Calais Campbell helped Chandler Jones and Markus Golden. He needs to step up in a big way else the Cardinals could be in some trouble.
The same goes for Rodney Gunter, who, despite an amazing rookie season, seemed to fall flat at times last year outside of a big game or two. The pair will need to step up and be dominant and run game because if no one can fill the hole Calais left, it doesn’t bode well for the Cardinals.
2. The Entire Offensive line outside of Iupati, Basically
This one’s pretty big, and I felt worth mentioning altogether, as they’re going to be the key to Carson Palmer’s push for a bounce back year.
D.J. Humphries swapping with Jared Veldheer to move to left tackle is big enough it might deserve it’s own mention as a story, but Arians solidifying Evan Boehm as the starting right guard with “it’s his job to lose” and Cole Toner stepping in for the one consistent player on the line last year in A.Q. Shipley (who’s undergoing surgery) means that there’s a lot to look at in camp. Palmer took almost double the sacks he had in 2015 and was hit the 3rd most of any QB in the league last year, so the offensive line is EASILY the 2nd leading story in camp.
And the #1 overall story is—
1.Carson Palmer’s Arm
This might not be what you expected as the top story.
Especially placed over Nkemdiche, Mathieu, Brown or the 2nd cornerback, but I believe it’s the biggest story for the Cardinals this season.
Palmer looked like a dead man walking at time last year, and then, his arm strength seemingly returned (as well as some WR’s stepped up) and he finished the year slinging the ball like it was 2015.
But he’s already taken a ton of time off to rest his arm, and will be doing so throughout the season. With aging QB’s, arm strength can seemingly go at any time. Just look at Peyton Manning’s popgun in 2015. Will Palmer and this new regiment be able to make his arm strength last?
If so, it means a ton not just for 2017, but potentially if Palmer feels good enough that he can play into 2018 as well, and keep that window cracked open for just another year.
Either way, Palmer’s arm, rest regiment, and daily play is THE key to the Cardinals success this season.
What do you think?
Agree, disagree? Any big stories that were left out? Should David Johnson have been mentioned?
Sound off in the comments section!
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