In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. Click here for the Falcons entry, the first in the series.
The Cardinals were the best team in the NFL with no shot to make the playoffs last season. They may have gotten a little better this spring, but does that change anything? The Cardinals overhauled their offensive line and secondary, but a potent mix of age, defections and suspensions threatens to undercut the team's gains. Success in the NFC West is not measured in baby steps but quantum leaps, so enthusiasm for the Cardinals, a fragile thing in any circumstances, is tempered by the knowledge that even the best offseason efforts may simply not have been good enough.
Biggest Offseason Move: Overhauling the O-line
Jared Veldheer is not exactly a household name, as most households do not revolve around Raiders offensive linemen who were injured for two-thirds of the last NFL season. So why were experts swooning over the Cardinals' Veldheer signing as if it were the bargain of the century?
Here is what you need to know: Veldheer allowed just three sacks in 16 games in 2012 and zero (zero!) in five starts last year (courtesy of Football Outsiders; sacks allowed are unofficial and can vary slightly from source to source). Those totals compare favorably with the likes of Joe Thomas and Duane Brown, perennial Pro Bowl left tackles. Veldheer had his eye-opening 2012 season while blocking for Carson Palmer; the Cardinals are simply looking for a repeat from the 6-foot-8 soon-to-turn 27 year old.
The Cardinals also added what amounts to a second first-round pick to the offensive line. Jonathan Cooper, the seventh pick in the 2013 draft, broke his leg in the third preseason game and missed all of his rookie year. Cooper has been participating in OTAs and lined up next to Veldheer at left guard during minicamps. Cooper left North Carolina as one of the top guard prospects of the last decade, an exceptional athlete for the position with refined technique. Veldheer and Cooper give the Cardinals the potential to have the best left side of an offensive line in their division.
The right side of the Cardinals line is also undergoing a transition. Sophomore Earl Watford earned raves at minicamp. Watford, a project from James Madison, has quickness to rival Cooper and is expected to give incumbent Paul Fanaika a heavy push. Bradley Sowell has moved from left to right tackle to challenge former Ole Miss teammate Bobby Massie, a starter in 2012. It's a fine example of upgrading two positions with one acquisition: Veldheer and the winner of Sowell-Massie is a massive improvement over Sowell and Massie.
The Cardinals also improved their secondary, with Antonio Cromartie and rookie Deone Bucannon giving them a ballhawk and a striker to supplement All Pro Patrick Peterson and honey badger Honey Badger. But in the NFC West, survival depends on brutal Paths of Glory-level trench warfare. Velheer and Cooper must be the ones who allow the Cardinals to survive the Seahawks and 49ers surges through the Sorbonne.
Biggest Gamble: Leaving Gramps to Babysit in the Backfield
Carson Palmer is 34 years old and threw 22 interceptions last year. The interception total is NFC Best-inflated (the Seahawks and Niners combined for nine of those interceptions), but Palmer's age and the dwindling memories of his 2005-06 glory days would have sent most teams prospect hunting in the draft. The Cardinals did select Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas, but on the project scale, he lands somewhere between the Big Dig and the Crazy Horse Memorial in scope-of-work terms. Bruce Arians is clearly content to rely on the football equivalent of a veteran No. 3 starting baseball pitcher for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals running backs are younger than ever after Rashard Mendenhall's retirement. Andre Ellington will fare well as a big-play threat. He led the league with 5.5 yards per rush, though an 80-yard run on limited carries inflated his average, and he is a very effective receiver. But Arians' system requires a between-the-tackles slasher/thumper, and that job now falls to Stepfan Taylor. The knock on Taylor leaving Stanford was that he was a high-character, high-effort player who simply lacked the speed-quickness-power to be anything more than a special teamer. That verdict appeared correct in 2013, when Taylor averaged just 3.2 yards per carry, with just five of his 36 carries gaining more than five yards.
An improved line can help both Palmer and the sophomore runners. Jonathan Dwyer is on hand to push Taylor for carries, and perhaps his conditioning and consistency issues will disappear now that he is not subletting Todd Haley's running back doghouse. But neither Palmer nor the youngsters can expect massive support from each other, creating a situation anyone who leaves their children with an elderly relative can recognize. To great-grandma: "Call me if the kids need anything." To oldest child: "Call me if great-grandma needs anything."
Biggest Question: Has the Defense Gained As Much As It's Lost?
Antonio Cromartie and Deone Bucannon represent a major upgrade in the secondary. Cromartie is the perfect No. 2 cornerback, a specialist at preying on mistakes when opponents are forced to direct their passing game in his direction. Bucannon hits hard, very very hard, and will restore some of the open-field vibe the team lost when Adrian Wilson got old.
But the Cardinals linebacking corps is in big trouble. Daryl Washington's suspension, coupled with Karlos Dansby's defection to Cleveland, leaves coordinator Todd Bowles without two of his most versatile defenders. Both Dansby and Washington could play the run, rush the passer, and drop into coverage, so their versatility and production -- 197 total tackles, 9.5 sacks, 6 interceptions, 30 passes defensed (a huge total for a pair of linebackers), 24 hits on quarterbacks, and so on -- will be difficult to replace.
Larry Foote is the likely replacement for Washington. Foote turns 34 next week and missed last season with a bicep injury. Seven years ago, he would have been an outstanding system fit. Kevin Minter got mentored by Dansby next year but rarely saw action on defense. With Foote joining John Abraham and Darnell Dockett as part of the "won't abandon the telephone land line" demographic in Arizona, the Cardinals front seven suddenly looks a lot like their backfield: old-timers may have to do a little more than they are capable of, while youngsters will have to grow up suddenly. With Abraham and Dockett still capable and a secondary so good, this would be nitpicking in any other division.
The Rams will overtake the Cardinals in the standings. The Rams have tons of young talent peaking at the right time, while the Cardinals are loaded with 30-somethings, from the players already mentioned through Larry Fitzgerald (and even declining kicker Jay Feely), who could regress a combined 10% due to age and get the team clobbered in the NFC Best. That would make the Cardinals the best last-place team in the NFL by far, but no one engraves that sort of accomplishment on a trophy.