Arizona Cardinals’ 2017 Season Preview

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After the win total climbed from 10 to 11 to 13 in Bruce Arians’ first three seasons coaching the Cardinals, it felt like 2016 was destined to be the pinnacle. The roster looked better on paper than the NFC Championship entrant from the year before, and no one was shying away from Super Bowl chatter.

The dream journey never materialized. Special teams mishaps, close-game failures, passing game woes and injuries contributed to a 7-8-1 record and a seat at home during the playoffs. The early part of the offseason was just as disconcerting, as star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and quarterback Carson Palmer considered retirement, while Arians’ longevity seemed in peril due to health problems.

As the 2017 season beckons, all three are back and ready for at least one more run. The outside expectations are lower after a losing season, but there is confidence internally, combined with a sense of urgency. The Cardinals know time is running out to get Fitzgerald and Palmer that elusive title.

“Those guys, they’re the pillars of this team,” center A.Q. Shipley said. “They’re not coming back for money. There’s no question about that. They’re coming back to win a championship. A lot of that rides on our success — everybody else, because you know they’re going to play well — whether it’s an extra practice for somebody or an extra rep, whatever. I think guys are sensing that it’s the end for them, whether it’s this year or soon enough. We’ve got a team this year that’s very good and very capable of getting the goal that we want to get.”

Offense

2016 Team Totals

Points Per Game
26.1
(6th in NFL)
Total Offense (Yards Per Game)
366.8
(9th in NFL)
Passing Yards Per Game
258.5
(6th in NFL)
Yards Per Pass Attempt
6.9
(23rd in NFL)
Rushing Yards Per Game
108.3
(18th in NFL)
Yards Per Carry
4.3
(12th in NFL)
Turnovers
28
(25th in NFL)
Third-Down Conversion Percentage
40.7
(14th in NFL)
Fourth-Down Conversion Percentage
50.0
(T-14th in NFL)

Players To Watch

Carson Palmer
QB Carson Palmer – The veteran signal-caller experienced a statistical decline in 2016, but much of the blame was due to struggles at offensive line and wide receiver. In his age-38 season, Palmer must prove he can still play at a high enough level to make the passing game click.
David Johnson RB David Johnson – The Cardinals’ star running back has hit superstardom, and will aim to exceed last season’s dominant performance. He is young and extremely talented, and is eyeing a season of 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards.
Larry Fitzgerald WR Larry Fitzgerald – While he contemplated retirement this offseason, Fitzgerald is not playing like someone near the end of his career. The Cardinals’ star led the NFL in receptions in 2016 and returns as the go-to aerial option for Palmer once again.
D.J. Humphries LT D.J. Humphries – The former first-round pick was moved back to his natural position this offseason and hopes to lock down the quarterback’s blind side for years to come. The athleticism is apparent but Humphries still has to prove he can handle some of the game’s best edge rushers on a regular basis.
John Brown WR John Brown – The Cardinals are thinner at wide receiver this year than in the past. They should be fine if Brown can return to his 2015 form, but that’s a question mark. Complications from the sickle cell trait have burdened him for the past year-plus and it remains to be seen if Brown can overcome the health concerns and again be a dominant player.

2016 Individual Leaders

C. Palmer
364-of-597 for 4,233 yards
26 TD, 14 INT

D. Johnson
1,239 rush yards, 16 TD
80 catches for 879 yards, 4 TD

K. Williams
18 carries for 157 yards
2 TD

L. Fitzgerald
107 catches for 1,023 yards
6 TD

J.J. Nelson
34 catches for 568 yards
6 TD

Jo. Brown
39 catches for 517 yards
2 TD

M. Floyd
33 catches for 446 yards
4 TD

J. Gresham
37 catches for 391 yards
2 TD

Ja. Brown
11 catches for 187 yards
TD

Key Losses

WR Michael Floyd
G Evan Mathis
TE Darren Fells
G Earl Watford

Key Additions

WR Chad Williams
G Alex Boone

Three Keys To The Offense

1
Protect Palmer

The offensive line was racked by injuries a season ago, and there were games in which Palmer was mercilessly pressured by opposing defenses. When he has time to throw, the passing game has the capacity to be solid, but Palmer’s lack of mobility means the line must hold up.

2
Give DJ The Rock

Arians has said this offseason he would like to get Johnson the ball 30 times per game, between carries and receptions. That might be ambitious, but clearly he has become the focal point of the offense. There are more question marks on offense this year compared to past seasons, but the brilliance of Johnson can cover a lot of it up.

3
Passing Game Balance

The Cardinals were dynamic in 2015 because their deep-ball attack worked to near-perfection. It didn’t work nearly as well early in 2016, and eventually the passing game shifted to shorter, lower-risk passes. Arians likes going deep, but Palmer has to do a good job of taking his shots when available while also finding underneath receivers when they are the best option.

Defense

2016 Team Totals

Points Per Game Allowed
22.6
(14th in NFL)
Total Defense
(Yards Per Game)
305.2
(2nd in NFL)
Passing Yards Per Game Allowed
210.3
(4th in NFL)
Yards Per Pass Allowed
6.8
(10th in NFL)
Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed
94.9
(9th in NFL)
Yards Per Carry Allowed
3.6
(3rd in NFL)
Turnovers
28
(T-4th in NFL)
Third-Down Conversion Percentage Allowed
38.8
(13th in NFL)
Fourth-Down Conversion Percentage Allowed
46.7
(T-14th in NFL)

Players To Watch

Tyrann Mathieu
S Tyrann Mathieu – The former All-Pro was never right in 2016 as he recovered from a torn ACL. The Cardinals lost two key safeties this offseason when Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger left in free agency, so Mathieu’s return to an elite playmaker is critical. He looked like that player throughout the preseason, but has to stay healthy.
Chandler Jones LB Chandler Jones – The Cardinals gave up a second-round pick in a trade for Jones before the 2015 season and then inked him to a big-money extension in March, so they have a lot invested in him. Jones accumulated 11 sacks a year ago and believes he is in line for a bigger year now that he’s more comfortable with the defense.
Patrick Peterson CB Patrick Peterson – The All-Pro cover man has been in prime form the past two seasons, regularly limiting the opposing team’s No. 1 receiving option. While Peterson doesn’t put up big statistical numbers because quarterbacks tend to avoid him, he is an integral part of the defense and will be needed to do much of the same in 2017.
Markus Golden LB Markus Golden – Jones is more heralded and has the traditional edge-rushing tools, but Golden was the one who led the team and finished tied for third in the NFL in sacks in 2016. A non-stop motor and a powerful base allows Golden to find success, and the pass rush should be solid again if he can repeat last season’s production.
Robert Nkemdiche DT Robert Nkemdiche – The loss of Campbell is big, and while the Cardinals have many players rotating on the line, it’s the former first-rounder who has the natural talent to replace him. Nkemdiche showed impressive burst and disruption in training camp after a frustrating rookie year, and if a calf strain doesn’t linger, he should be a pivotal piece.

2016 Individual Leaders

C. Campbell
63 tackles, 8 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries, 2 forced fumbles, 1 INT

T. Jefferson
92 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries

M. Golden
63 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles

P. Peterson
46 tackles, 3 INT, 8 pass deflections

C. Jones
57 tackles, 11 sacks, 4 forced fumbles

D. Bucannon
100 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 4 passes defensed

K. Minter
95 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, 4 passes defensed

M. Cooper
65 tackles, 4 INT, 11 passes defensed

D.J. Swearinger
63 tackles, 3 INT, 2 sacks, 8 passes defensed

Key Losses

DT Calais Campbell
S Tony Jefferson
S D.J. Swearinger
CB Marcus Cooper
LB Kevin Minter
LB Alex Okafor

Key Additions

LB Karlos Dansby
S Antoine Bethea
LB Haason Reddick
S Budda Baker
LB Josh Bynes
CB Tramon Williams

Three Keys To The Defense

1
Stabilize No. 2 Cornerback

Peterson will again shadow the opponent’s best aerial option, but the defense can’t reach its potential if the cover man opposite him falters. Justin Bethel has claimed the starting job heading into the season after a strong training camp, and now that he’s healthy, there is hope he can fill in capably. Tramon Williams and Brandon Williams are the backup options if Bethel struggles.

2
Hold Up In The Trenches

The front office didn’t add anyone of note following Campbell’s departure, believing in the returning players to pick up the slack. Nkemdiche, Josh Mauro, Corey Peters, Frostee Rucker and Olsen Pierre will lead a rotation which hopes to get interior pressure on opposing quarterbacks and stuff the run. If the line is subpar, the defense may take a step back.

3
Rookie Impact

The Cardinals used the No. 13 overall pick on inside linebacker Haason Reddick and No. 36 on safety Budda Baker. Both flashed their talent during the preseason, but also made mistakes spurred by inexperience. There’s no questioning the natural ability of the pair, but the Cardinals top picks have not been difference-makers as rookies of late. If Reddick and Baker contribute, the loss of five defensive starters in free agency will be a distant memory.

Special Teams

2016 Team Totals

Field Goal Percentage
75.0
(31st in NFL)
Extra Point Percentage
91.5
(23rd in NFL)
Yards Per Punt
41.9
(32nd in NFL)
Net Yards Per Punt
37.0
(32nd in NFL)
Yards Per Kickoff Return
21.8
(16th in NFL)
Yards Per Punt Return
6.1
(30th in NFL)

Players To Watch

Phil Dawson
Phil Dawson – After Chandler Catanzaro’s shaky season, the Cardinals let him leave and signed Dawson. He is 42 years old but has connected on 87.5 percent of his field goals and 96.4 percent of his extra points the past two seasons. The Cardinals believe they have upgraded the position.
Andy Lee Andy Lee – Matt Wile and Richie Leone battled for the punter job throughout the offseason, but neither got the job. The Cardinals signed Lee, a three-time All-Pro selection, after he was released by the Panthers. The punting position has been a weak spot in the past few years and Lee hopes to stabilize it.
Kerwynn Williams Kerwynn Williams – Rookie T.J. Logan looked dynamic as the punt and kick returner early in training camp, but dislocated his wrist and was placed on injured reserve. If he returns, it won’t be until around midseason. Williams has looked more comfortable than expected fielding punts and will be the primary return man initially.

2016 Individual Leaders

C. Catanzaro
21-of-28 FG
43-of-47 extra points

M. Wile
10 punts for 437 yards
43.7 average, 37.5 net

D. Butler
32 punts, 1,350 yards
42.2 average, 35.6 net

B. Golden
11 kick returns, 266 yards
24.2 average

Jo. Brown
17 punt returns, 119 yards
7.0 average, 51-yard kickoff return

Key Losses

K Chandler Catanzaro
P Matt Wile

Key Additions

K Phil Dawson
P Andy Lee
PR/KR T.J. Logan

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