The Arizona Cardinals are a difficult team to predict this year, mainly because last season they lost an entire season of prime David Johnson due to injury, meaning that they essentially had to play a 15.75 game season with Larry Fitzgerald as their only real offensive option. The Cardinals have also managed to find themselves in one of the most unpredictable divisions in the league. Over the course of just one season, the Rams went from 4-12 to 11-5, for a start. The Seahawks are on a downward trajectory (especially on defense) and the 49ers are on the up. The NFC West is one to watch this season.
So, what happened? As I said before, the Cardinals super star running back, coming off an absolutely astonishing dual-threat 2,000-yard season, David Johnson, was taken out early on in the first game of the season with a wrist injury which kept him on the sideline all year. This first game against the Lions ended in a loss, which set the tone for the season.
The second week, although resulting in a win, saw them requiring Overtime to overpower the Andrew Luck-less Indianapolis Colts to make it 1-1. In fact, the Arizona side won alternate games all the way through week 10; winning against the 49ers twice and then the Buccaneers. By the time that they made it through these first 10 weeks (with their bye in Week 8) they were 4-5. Considering that they only lost to the Lions, Cowboys, Eagles, Rams and Seahawks they weren’t exactly giving up easy wins. Even the Texans, who they faced in Week 11 to end their alternating streak, were (although not winning many games) looking as scary on offense as they had in years.
In their next game, the Jacksonville Jaguars visited the University of Phoenix Stadium, and the hosts actually managed to edge the defensive juggernaut out 27-24. This was a big win, against one of the best defenses in the league, and this was the pivotal game in a very good finish to the season. The Cardinals turned their 4-6 start into a very respectable 8-8; only losing to the Rams and Redskins in this six-week stretch.
Coming off the back of the surprisingly competitive .500 season, David Johnson returns to the fray, undoubtedly excited to return to the field, to try and pick up from his amazing 2016 campaign. However, there are many more interesting personnel changes to look at in Arizona.
On the sideline, the retirement of long-term HC Bruce Arians brings in new Head Coach, Steve Wilks. Wilks was a defensive back as a player and then became a DB coach for the Bears and the Chargers. Ron Rivera hauled him to the Panthers in 2012, and throughout his time there he moved up from secondary coach all the way to becoming their defensive coordinator, before now arriving as a first-time Head Coach in Phoenix.
Most importantly – on the field, there are big changes at the quarterback position, as they bridge from the Carson Palmer era into the new Josh Rosen era. The pro-ready UCLA alumnus is coming in ready to take over the team and is very confident in his ability to take the helm as a franchise QB straight out of the draft. But it isn’t that simple, because the Cardinals added another player who is quite similar in some ways to Rosen but has been in the league for a while longer, in Sam Bradford.
Yep, they added one of the most famously injury prone players in the NFL. I can easily see Josh Rosen starting by week 5. But Bradford can be very efficient when healthy. No matter who is at QB, this team will be built around two things – their stars, David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. The thing that both of the Cardinals QB’s specialise at are the short-medium throws over-the-middle, and that will be great for Fitz and the Tight Ends.. Some people would argue that Sam Bradford is one of the best short throwers in the whole league when healthy, especially between the numbers.
The other big change is in the secondary. Three essential players on the defensive back depth chart left this offseason; Tramon Williams, Tyvon Branch and most damagingly of all, Tyrann Mathieu. The defense had a weird season, giving up the 6th fewest yards per game to both rushing and passing, whilst simultaneously finishing 19th in points conceded per game – suggesting that (even if not helped much by field position) teams were still putting up numbers, without racking up big yardage. This obviously won’t be any better with the loss of key members of the secondary.
The strengths of the Arizona Cardinals aren’t as open-ended as most teams, you can’t necessarily just say they’re good at this or they’re good at that, because they’ve got issues across the board – but they do have two superstars; veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and their dynamic running back David Johnson.
Larry Fitzgerald is an absolute freak of nature, he’s this generation’s version of Jerry Rice, the Tom Brady of wide receivers, whatever you want to call him – he ages like a fine wine. He’s now entering his 15th season, at the age of 34, but that isn’t slowing him down. Since 2015 he has seen a resurgence, and in those three seasons he has had over 100 receptions for 1,000 yards and 6 touchdowns. You’d be impressed if he did that when he was 25, (in fairness, he also did it when he was 25). There’s no reason why this year we should expect any different, both of his quarterback options excel over the middle of the field, and he is the best wide receiver on the team, by a long way.
But he isn’t necessarily the best receiving option – there’s another guy for that. David Johnson is one of the elite dual-threat running backs in the NFL, just because he was injured last season doesn’t mean we can forget about his 2016 breakout season; one of the most dominant sophomore seasons you’re likely to ever see. In that season he racked up 1,239 rushing yards on 293 attempts, and 879-yards through the air on a very healthy 80 receptions. Oh, and he also had 20 touchdowns (yes… 20) including 16 rushing scores. If Johnson hadn’t have got injured last year, I believe the Cardinals would have been in the playoffs. He’s back with a chip on his shoulder, this season, and I think that they are going to put the team on his back once again.
It’s a huge shame, but the secondary is going to be a potentially massive problem this season for the Cardinals, if they had held on to the likes of Tyrann Mathieu. They could have had a great secondary (coached by Steve Wilks) but unfortunately the timing didn’t work out that way – meaning that the new HC will be working with fresh faces in the secondary, with Patrick Peterson serving as the only senior DB they have now.
The offensive and defensive lines are the other big issues. Starting with the O-Line; they’re not good. You can argue about whether the QB position is going to be problematic or not, but the guys stood in front of them won’t be doing whoever is commanding the job many favours. Arizona allowed 217 total pressures last season and were tied in third for the most sacks given up by any team with 52 total sacks, for a lass of 339 yards on them. The O-Line troubles definitely didn’t help out their QB’s last year, and whether you’re coming in as a rookie (Rosen) or an injury-prone veteran (Bradford), it won’t be easy. Pro Football Focus has them ranked as the 31st offensive line in the NFL last season, only better than the Texans.
The defensive line isn’t much better, but at least it has one standout player. Even amongst a poor line, Chandler Jones is one of the premier edge-rushers in the league, but he has no help. Last season, of their total 37 sacks, Jones was responsible for 17 of them – that’s 46%. The second most sacks from a single player on the team was only 5.5. Jones is the only reason that they even get any pressure (and even then they only pressured on 34% of snaps; 20th in the NFL), and this year – with a weaker secondary – I think it’s got a chance to get even worse. Pro Football Focus rated them as the 20th pass rushing unit in the league.
Best Case Scenario
David Johnson returns and immediately finds himself in his 2016 form again, scoring 15 total touchdowns and dominating through the air and on the ground. He has a 2,000-yard season again, and scares the hell out of every defense. The fear of David Johnson’s receiving and rushing duality keeps their opponents on edge enough that the other weapons can thrive – Fitzgerald has his fourth consecutive 100 – 1,000 – 5 seasons with Sam Bradford playing (not hurt) and having a great comeback season. The defensive side of the ball struggles, but new HC Steve Wilks is able to do enough to utilise what they have, most importantly Chandler Jones, who has a 25 sack season and is nominated for DPOTY. The Cardinals barely edge out the 49ers and clinch a playoff spot behind the Rams, but with only single-digit wins.
Worst Case Scenario
DJ isn’t the same. Fitzgerald is old. Bradford gets hurt. This scenario, unfortunately, isn’t as far-fetched as Arizona fans would hope. With Johnson unable to get in the same groove as he was in before, and the Offensive Line doing him absolutely no favours, the defense isn’t scared enough to stop rushing the QB, which is now Josh Rosen – after a few weeks. Rosen is sacked 40 times even though he didn’t start every game, and he isn’t able to get the ball to Fitz or Johnson quickly or accurately enough under pressure. The defense is awful, which forces them to throw the ball way too often, as they’re behind, and so Rosen ends the season with a TD:INT ratio of 7:12. Fitzgerald retires after the team gets a tragic 2 or 3 wins, coming last in the division, with a tough schedule.
Somewhere closer to the second option. David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald will both do their best, and from their own isolated perspectives (or for fantasy owners) will have a good season, but the team as a whole suffers from its tough schedule. Even with Sam Bradford doing his best to make a comeback, he struggles to really dominate, and even if he remains healthy he is replaced by Josh Rosen in the second half of the year, because the season is a write-off and they need to get some experience for their franchise QB. They go 4-12, and come last in their division, watching in agony as the 49ers return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Cardinals front office immediately has to start trying to bring in new talent, to make sure that they don’t waste DJ, whilst also trying unsuccessfully to replace their Hall of Fame wide receiver, who retires.