In just a couple of seasons the NFC West has managed to go from being perpetually putrid to perhaps the best division in football. That reality will make the rebuilding job of the Arizona Cardinals under new head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim that much more difficult.
The addition of Carson Palmer with bolstered depth and talent along the offensive line could help the Cardinals take a sizable step forward from their performance last year. The grouping of John Skelton, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer proved to be a horror show at quarterback for the Cardinals a year ago. The offensive line may have been even worse.
While the Cardinals have talented pieces, especially on defense, it will be a challenge to keep up with the rest of their division in 2013.
The Cardinals remain strong along the defensive line. Calais Campbell is one of the top 3-4 defensive ends in the game. Despite a slightly less productive season in the stat sheets Darnell Dockett remains a solid player and Dan Williams took a step forward at nose tackle.
The wide receiver position has potential to be a strength for the Cardinals as well. Though depth may be lacking, Larry Fitzgerald remains one of the best in the game despite a dip in numbers last season with poor quarterback play. Andre Roberts developed into a nice slot/secondary option and last year’s first round draft pick Michael Floyd finished the season strong eight catches for 166 yards and a touchdown in the season finale against San Francisco.
Linebacker will be a strength as well when Daryl Washington returns from a four-game suspension to start the season. The Cardinals brought back Karlos Dansby to team with Jasper Brinkley, Reggie Walker and second-round draft pick Kevin Minter inside with Sam Acho, Lorenzo Alexander and O’Brien Schofield fighting for playing time outside.
The Cardinals are talented at the running back position, but talent only goes so far. Rashard Mendenhall has had problems developing into a consistent threat during five seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Injuries and a team suspension brought his time with the Steelers to an end. Ryan Williams has also had season-ending injuries in each of his first two seasons with the team.
Arizona’s offensive line appears better equipped this season with the return of Levi Brown from injury and the addition of first-round pick Jonathan Cooper at guard. However, the Cardinals will have to prove they can be at least adequate up front this season for the team to take a legitimate leap forward.
The starting quarterback position should be stabilized with the addition of Palmer but the depth remains unproven. Lindley struggled in his opportunities last season. The Cardinals added Drew Stanton in free agency but he has only started four games in five seasons and hasn’t seen game action since 2010 with Detroit.
Quarterback is the most noticeable change as Arizona brought in Palmer from Oakland to steady the ship. Also gone is running back Beanie Wells. The Cardinals signed former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall to fill his spot on the roster.
Arizona also parted with guard Adam Snyder a year after signing him to a five-year deal. He was released after the Cardinals selected Cooper in the draft.
Safety Adrian Wilson is now in New England after spending the first 12 years of his career in the desert. Arizona signed Yeremiah Bell and drafted LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu in the third round to bolster the safety position. Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander also joins the Cardinals after seven seasons with the Washington Redskins.
Several positions should see legitimate competition in training camp for the Cardinals. Expect a battle between Nate Potter and Bobby Massie for the starting job at right tackle. Mendenhall could see a fight from Ryan Williams or rookies Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington.
On the defensive side of the ball, the linebacker positions seem to be completely up for grabs. With Washington facing a four-game suspension to start the year, Dansby, Brinkley and rookie Minter will battle for the middle linebacker spots while Alexander and Schofield will compete outside. Jerraud Powers and Antoine Cason will fight for the starting cornerback job opposite Patrick Peterson.
The play at the quarterback position and along the offensive line can’t get much worse than a season ago. Palmer should bring some stability to the group and be able to handle the position more competently than the revolving door of last year. Consistent play at quarterback should help Arizona’s offense find some footing and get Larry Fitzgerald productive once again.
New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will try to keep a strong defensive unit headed in the right direction. Campbell, Williams and Dockett should continue to anchor the Cardinals’ defensive front but the back seven has some uncertainty in a few positions to work out.
If the offense can become somewhat competent the Cardinals have the chance to take strides forward this season. However, even if the Cardinals do improve it may not translate to the win column. With the strength of San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis it seems unlikely Arizona will be able to claw out of the basement of the NFC West.