The Arizona Cardinals finished the 2013 season as one of the hottest teams in the league. The Cardinals finished 7-2 over the final nine games with their only two losses coming by a field goal to a pair of playoff teams in Philadelphia and San Francisco. In addition, Arizona is the only team in two seasons to defeat the Seattle Seahawks at home with a 17-10 win in Week 16.
However, the Cardinals have lost a few key pieces off a defense that ranked sixth in the league last season. Karlos Dansby signed with the Cleveland Browns in free agency and Daryl Washington was suspended for the year for another drug violation.
Free agent additions Larry Foote and Antonio Cromartie on defense, and Jared Veldheer, John Carlson and Ted Ginn on offense could help the Cardinals mount a challenge against Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers for control of the NFC West.
The Cardinals possess one of the best 3-4 defensive fronts in the league. Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell are stalwarts at defensive end with Dan Williams and Alameda Ta’Amu as solid options at nose tackle. John Abraham continues to defy his age after posting 11.5 sacks for Arizona last season as a rush linebacker.
Arizona appears to have finally found a true complement to pair with Larry Fitzgerald in Michael Floyd. With the addition of Ted Ginn and third-round pick John Brown, quarterback Carson Palmer should have a bevy of options to help build upon his 4,000-yard campaign last season.
The signing of Jared Veldheer and the return of the 2014 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper should help stabilize an offensive line that has long been mediocre at best. However, the right side of the line brings more questions. Journeyman Paul Fanaika is penciled in right guard with a triumvirate of Nate Potter, Bobby Massie and Bradley Sowell likely battling for the job at right tackle.
With Dansby and Washington out of the picture, the Cardinals need to find suitable replacements at inside linebacker. Foote and 2013 second-round pick Kevin Minter will be called upon to step into the vacated roles, but they’ll have massive production to replace. Foote played in just one game last season with Minter unproven as an every down player. Ernie Sims and Lorenzo Alexander could also push for playing time.
Dansby and Washington are the most notable departures for the Cardinals on defense while right tackle Eric Winston and left guard Daryn Colledge are gone on offense. First-round pick Deone Buchanon will be called upon to replace Yeremiah Bell alongside Tyrann Mathieu (when healthy) at safety.
Antonio Cromartie should be an upgrade from Jerraud Powers, Justin Bethel and Javier Arenas at cornerback. John Carlson (if he can stay healthy) and second-round pick Troy Niklas should provide some more consistent depth at tight end as well.
The battles for starting spots along the right side of the Cardinals offensive line will be important to watch. Sowell and Massie have both struggled when called upon to start in the past and Arizona could use consistency up front.
The battle for the inside linebacker jobs should be the most fierce with Foote, Minter, Sims and Alexander all competing for two spots.
Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer will be battling for secondary carries behind Andre Ellington, who showed flashes of promise as a rookie.
The Arizona Cardinals should be legitimate contenders for a playoff spot this season if they can recapture the momentum they finished with in 2013. The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers will enter the season as the favorites to win the division, but the Cardinals aren’t far behind.
They will face a slightly more favorable schedule than their fellow division rivals and will likely be ready to pounce if either Seattle or San Francisco falters this fall.
Carson Palmer has stabilized the revolving door at quarterback over the past several seasons and the offensive line is in better shape than it’s been in a long time. The secondary should be improved with the additions of Cromartie and Buchanon as well. If the Cardinals can find adequate replacements for Dansby and Washington, they should once again be a force on defense.
The Cardinals reside in the best division in football but they appear to be up for the task of challenging for a playoff spot alongside the Seahawks and 49ers.