The Arizona Cardinals won seven of their final nine games last season as they made a late-season push for a playoff spot in a difficult NFC West. The defense finished the year ranked 6th in the league and Carson Palmer passed for over 4,000 yards.
They’ve lost some significant pieces to that defense this offseason and the offensive line continues to have some questions despite the addition of Jared Veldheer at left tackle.
The NFC West looks imposing once again and the Cardinals are looking up at Seattle and San Francisco for bragging rights in the division.
Here are five questions that could ultimately determine whether the Cardinals can rundown the top of the division this season:
1. Have the Cardinals lost too much defensively?
The Cardinals defense was one of the best in the league last season. However, they’ve lost three major pieces from that unit this year.
Karlos Dansby left in free agency for the Cleveland Browns, Daryl Washington was suspended for the season due to repeated substance-abuse violations and Darnell Dockett suffered a torn ACL in training camp.
That leaves a major void that the Cardinals may not be able to fill through the middle of their defense.
Arizona has added Isaac Sopoaga, Ryan McBean, Tommy Kelly, Larry Foote and Ernie Sims in an attempt to patch some of the holes, but the production lost from the departed pieces is significant.
2. Is Carson Palmer able to limit turnovers?
Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer passed for 4,274 yards and 24 touchdowns last year. The problem with those numbers is that they came along with 22 interceptions and three lost fumbles.
With the continued emergence of receiver Michael Floyd, the Cardinals passing offense became a more dynamic unit last season. However, Palmer turned the ball over too many times and it came back to cost Arizona all too frequently.
Palmer is still a capable quarterback but the turnovers have to come down this season. With the defense looking potentially weakened due to the losses we already detailed, the Cardinals will need to maximize every opportunity they have to possess the ball.
One thing that would help Palmer?
3. Can the offensive line hold up to allow the offense to function at a high level?
Veteran Eric Winston is gone, leaving the right side of the Cardinals offensive line again in doubt.
Paul Fanaika and Bobby Massie have both been fairly pedestrian at best in their opportunities to play in Arizona.
Jared Veldheer is a nice addition at left tackle. Lyle Sendlein is a capable center and second-year guard Jonathan Cooper has great potential. However, the right side could be problematic.
Arizona’s offense has weapons. With Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Ted Ginn and John Brown at receiver and Andre Ellington in the backfield, the potential for a strong offense is there. But the offense line must be able to perform to give their skill players the opportunities they need.
4. Is Arizona capable of dethroning Seattle and/or San Francisco in the NFC West?
Coming off their Super Bowl victory, the Seattle Seahawks look to be as strong as their title team from a season ago.
However, the San Francisco 49ers don’t look nearly as untouchable.
San Francisco’s first-team offense has struggled mightily this preseason to produce points. NaVorro Bowman will miss a sizable chunk of the season. Glenn Dorsey is out for the year and nothing appears to be in sync right now for the 49ers.
Arizona finished 2013 as one of the hottest teams in the league and is the only team in two years to win a game in Seattle. With the strength of the NFC West, it’s likely Arizona will have to supplant either Seattle or San Francisco to find themselves in the postseason this January.
5. Can Andre Ellington carry the rushing attack?
Andre Ellington proved to be a terrific change-of-pace option for the Arizona Cardinals at running back last season.
Ellington carried 118 times for 652 yards and three touchdowns last season as a secondary option to starter Rashard Mendenhall. Now with Mendenhall gone, Ellington will get his chance to be the lead back for the Cardinals.
Ellington started just one game last season as a rookie but posted an impressive 5.5 yards per carry average in the chances he received. Will he be able to duplicate that production with an expanded role?