The Arizona Cardinals’ 2011 season was considered a disappointment in large part because quarterback Kevin Kolb didn’t pan out. Just after last year’s lockout ended, Arizona sent cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2012 second-round pick to Philadelphia in exchange for Kolb. The Cards also signed Kolb to a six-year, $65 million contract.
Kolb battled injuries, and was ineffective when he did take the field. John Skelton took over and led Arizona to a 5-2 record in seven starts. The Cardinals quietly finished the season with seven wins in their final nine games.
So while a quarterback quandary remains following a failed offseason run at Peyton Manning, the fast finish provides reason for optimism in the desert this year.
Calvin Johnson has developed into the NFL’s most dominant receiver, but Larry Fitzgerald isn’t far behind. Fitzgerald catches the football as cleanly as any wideout in the game and tilts defensive coverage, making his teammates better. The Cardinals also feel they improved opposite Fitzgerald by drafting Michael Floyd with the No. 13 overall pick. With physical run-after-catch threat Early Doucet in the slot, the receiver corps is Arizona’s strength on offense.
On defense, the Cardinals have playmakers up front and in the back end. Ends Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett collapse the pocket, and 2011 fourth-round pick Sam Acho flashed edge-rushing talent with seven sacks and four forced fumbles as a rookie starter. Fellow outside linebacker O’Brien Schofield will take over opposite Acho, and there is some feeling that Schofield could be even better.
Inside linebacker Daryl Washington and cornerback Patrick Peterson are Arizona’s young linchpins in the back seven. Washington is a dynamic, improving run stuffer, while Peterson demonstrated shutdown-corner capabilities down last season’s stretch. Peterson is also a difference maker in the punt-return game. Strong safety Adrian Wilson is still going strong entering his age-33 season.
Talent isn’t an issue in Arizona’s offensive backfield, but durability is. Incumbent starter Beanie Wells and 2011 second-round pick Ryan Williams are both coming back from knee surgeries. Any NFL team with quarterback trouble would benefit greatly from a consistent, productive running game. The Cardinals have not gotten that from Wells, so far.
Behind perhaps only quarterback, offensive line play is the biggest concern in Arizona. Kolb tends to get happy feet in the pocket amid unsound protection, and pass blocking was a major problem for the 2011 Cards. Football Outsiders graded the Cardinals’ offensive line as 15th best in run blocking, but a lowly 27th in pass protection. Arizona shook up its front five this offseason, but none of the moves inspired much confidence.
Defensively, the Cards need better play from 2010 first-round pick Dan Williams, who has struggled with weight and durability, failing to nail down nose tackle. There are questions to answer at the cornerback spot opposite Peterson and inside linebacker job next to Washington.
The Cardinals aggressively pursued Manning, but came up short and the only notable quarterback addition was sixth-round pick Ryan Lindley. Lindley has a big arm and is smart (35 Wonderlic score), but probably at least a year away.
Floyd and a returning Williams are the big-name newcomers to Arizona’s skill-player positions. The Cardinals signed right guard Adam Snyder to a five-year, $17.5 million contract. Fourth-round rookie Bobby Massie was a pre-draft favorite of Mel Kiper’s, and will battle journeyman Jeremy Bridges for the right tackle spot.
Arizona didn’t have a second-round pick, but selected cornerback Jamell Fleming in the third round after signing William Gay away from the Steelers. Greg Toler, a starting corner in 2010 before tearing his ACL last September, will battle Fleming and Gay to start across from Peterson.
The Cardinals hope that continuity throughout the coaching staff will expedite in-house improvement across the roster.
The Cardinals are internally pulling for Kolb to hold off Skelton considering their costly investment two offseasons ago. But they won’t ignore the fact that Skelton engineered 2011 victories, and probably offers a higher long-term ceiling than his competitive adversary. A heated quarterback battle will generate the most headlines in Cardinals training camp.
Arizona will hold competition at running back, right tackle, tight end, and wide receiver this August. Defensively, the one cornerback job is wide open, and the Cardinals hope 2011 big-ticket free agent signing Stewart Bradley will make a case for more snaps after a disappointing debut season.
While the PFT Power Rankings project Arizona to be among the league’s eight worst teams, we openly acknowledge that they could surpass our expectations, especially if the Cardinals get improved, consistent quarterback and running back play. We are simply skeptical that they will do so.
The conservative guess is that the weak NFC West will produce just one playoff team, and our expectation is that San Francisco will be playing ball in January for a second straight year. But the Cardinals don’t lack roster talent on par with that of a wild-card contender.
Running back and quarterback performance will determine the fate of this team.