In 2011, the Arizona Cardinals went 8-8 following a disappointing 5-11 campaign in 2010. The .500 record was good enough for second place in the NFC West, as the Cardinals finished just one game above the Seattle Seahawks. While incoming quarterback Kevin Kolb did not play like the quarterback the team expected him to be given what they paid up for him, the Cardinals ended up improving by a total of three wins. A lot of this was due to an improved defense led by new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who came from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Defensive end Calais Campbell and veteran safety Adrian Wilson led the way for the defense, as Wilson made the Pro Bowl in what was a bounce back year for him. He was disappointing, by his lofty standards, the year before but fared out much better in 2011. Wilson was excellent in coverage with 14 passes defended and recorded eight tackles for loss. Campbell was pegged by many experts to have a big year, and he delivered with nine sacks, 17 quarterbacks hits, and 12 tackles for loss. A stat that really jumps out at me when looking at Campbell’s numbers is “10″; the number of passes defended that the star DE had.
The dynamic defensive tackle Darnell Dockett paired up with Campbell for about 100 quarterback disruptions, with Dockett contributing 51 tackles, ten tackles for loss, and 16 QB hits.
The Cardinals lacked consistency at quarterback with Kevin Kolb last season, but Kolb is still better than John Skelton. While the Cardinals were six games better with Skelton at the helm, Kolb had better numbers across the board. He threw less interceptions, completed more passes, and he averaged more yards per pass attempt (7.7 to 7.0). The problem is that Kolb is as mercurial as it gets, and that needs to change if the Cardinals want to get above .500.
2011 Record 8-8
CB William Gay
S James Sanders
G/T Adam Snyder
OLB Quentin Groves
WR Michael Floyd 1st round, Notre Dame
CB Jamell Fleming 3rd round, Oklahoma
OT Bobby Massie 4th round Ole Miss
OG Senio Kelemete
CB Richard Marshall
S Sean Considine
WR Chansi Stuckey
G Deuce Lutui
On offense, the strongest position for the Arizona Cardinals is at the running back position. Although Ryan Williams is returning from (gulp) patellar tendon surgery, he has looked quick and explosive in training camp. An injury to the patellar tendon is one of the most serious injuries in football, and it is especially damaging for a running back. Just take a look at the career that could have been for Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Cadillac Williams.
Anyway, Ryan Williams has been impressing everyone, and the former Virginia Tech standout looks fine from the outside looking in. He’s hitting the hole with conviction and gives the Cardinals a good stable of running backs with LaRod Stephens-Howling and 1,000-yard rusher Beanie Wells.
Larry Fitzgerald and Beanie Wells are the unquestioned stars of this team, with Fitzgerald looking like a monster year-in and year-out. The superstar wideout was as dangerous as ever going deep and managed to catch 80 passes for over 1,400 yards and average 9.2 yards per target (1.5 points higher than Kolb’s average and 2.2 higher than Skelton’s) for another big year. He looks poised for more next season and dropped just three passes.
While dropped passes weren’t a problem for the sure-handed Fitzgerald, they were a problem for both Early Doucet and Andre Roberts. The No. 2 and 3 receivers combined for 14 drops. Both receivers caught over 50 passes, but Doucet was clearly the better receiver in averaging 7.1 yard per target. He’s about an average receiver, but Roberts needs to step up his game. The dropped passes weren’t the only thing that hurt him, as he was poor across the board with an average of just six yards per target.
All told, the Cardinals need a true No. 2 receiver to pair up with Larry Fitzgerald to ease the pressure off of him and quarterback Kevin Kolb. No. 13 pick Michael Floyd can be that guy, especially since the Cardinals want to use more four-receiver sets on offense. That’s going to play out well for them, since Doucet and Roberts are best used in the left and right slots, allowing Floyd and Fitzgerald to split out wide.
The Notre Dame product has looked the part in training camp and has been extremely impressive. The team is hoping that Floyd is the guy who can fill their need, and he is showing off his skills in the offseason. But the real question is whether or not Floyd can perform well in actual games and give a big boost to this offense. I think he can get 50 catches, five TDs, and 750 passing yards.
Veteran tight end Todd Heap could have played better in his first season for Arizona, but he was hindered by hamstring injuries and was only able to play ten games. Heap caught 24 passes and caught most of what was thrown his way in that short time. Jeff King was slightly better than Heap, but Heap will get more targets his way with King being the run blocking specialist.
Neither of those two are the tight ends to talk about this season, because it’s all about breakout candidate Rob Housler. Head coach Ken Wisenhunt is really high on him, and last year’s third-rounder has been played with the first-stringers in training camp. Housler could be the next breakout star at the tight end position, and every indication is that the Cardinals are going to do everything they can to help him reach a high level of play. Housler is a guy to keep an eye on for sure, especially since the Cards want to use more twin-TE sets than ever and get the position more involved in the passing attack. Housler has a chance to put up some monster numbers.
On the offensive line, Jeremy Bridges got the starting nod over Brandon Massie, but I don’t think that lasts. Massie, a fourth-round pick out of Ole Miss, has good upside, while Bridges is a below-average starting right tackle. I hope Massie can overtake Bridges soon, because he has more upside and the only thing Bridges has on the 316-pound rookie is experience.
Left tackle Levi Brown was the worst starting tackle in the NFL and looked like one of the biggest busts on the offensive line in history- until the second half of last season. The former first-rounder from Penn State dramatically turned things around, and Brown went from being a horrible pass protector to someone who helped the team out with his blocking. He was his usual poor self in the first half of the year, but Brown’s second half shows that he may have found himself. The talent is certainly there, but Brown needs to prove this year that the second-half of 2011 wasn’t a fluke. I doubt it, but it’s better to have some optimism.
Left guard Daryn Colledge took a paycut to remain on the team, and he’s one of the best ten run-blocking guards in the NFL. The problem is that he is a poor pass blocker, but the Cardinals will take the good with the bad. Colledge’s prowess as a run blocker outweighs his poor pass protecting, especially since Colledge is a guard. Rookie backup Senio Kelemete can play at tackle or guard, and he is slotted in as the Cards’ backup LG.
At right guard, the Cardinals signed one of the most versatile offensive linemen in the league in former San Francisco 49ers OL Adam Snyder. The problem is that Rex Hadnot’s replacement’s talent doesn’t nearly match his versatility. While he can play at every position on the line, Snyder’s pass blocking is so poor that it doesn’t really matter. He is actually an average run blocker and is a nice backup to have because he can play every position, but some people are a little too high on this signing.
I bet Kevin Kolb was very happy when the Arizona Cardinals re-signed center Lyle Sendlein, who is one of the best pass-blocking centers in the league and easily the best pass-blocker on the team. Sendlein is one of the team’s two offensive captains, and the 27-year-old Texas product is a great leader on the line. He is one of the most underrated players in the game, and any Cardinals fan will attest to his skill and leadership. Recently signed backup Russ Hochstein is far removed from his glory days with the New England Patriots, but he is a nice veteran backup to have and is also a leader.
Quarterback is the glamour position in the NFL, but it isn’t quite that for the Arizona Cardinals. John Skelton is a complacent quarterback who isn’t a starter in this league. He’s a good backup to have, but just because he had a winning record doesn’t mean he should start. Just look at his sub-70 QB Rating and the fact that he threw more picks than TDs. The only advantage he has on Kolb is his arm strength.
The problem is that Kolb doesn’t look any better, and he was below-average last year. He doesn’t look awful when looking at his numbers, but the only stat that he was above the league average in was yards per attempt (7.7). Stats don’t tell the whole story, as Kolb was one of the most erratic starting QBs last year and is the antithesis of consistency. He only went deep on 16.6 percentage of his throws, and he completed just 57.7% of his passes. That’s not a good combination, and Kolb is supposed to be an accurate passer.
Again, the reason why the Arizona Cardinals managed to get to .500 is because of their defense; chiefly the defensive line. The Cards have one of the top crops of DLs in the NFL with Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, and Dan Williams. Backups nose tackle David Carter is an underrated player, and Vonnie Holliday is a season veteran who provides a solid pass-rushing presence as a backup 3-4 DE.
I already went over how great Campbell and Dockett performed last year, but I want to talk a bit more about nose tackle Dan Williams. He is a guy who needs to make the jump in the third season, and he has the physical tools to do it. The former 2010 first-rounder saw 2010 second-rounder Daryl Washington make the jump last year, and now it’s time for Williams to prove himself. He came into camp weighing in at 314, and he has promised to be more fit. Williams has had weight problems in the pass, as has backup DE Nick Eason (lost 40 pounds this offseason).
The biggest weakness on the Cardinals isn’t at quarterback; it’s at outside linebacker. Starters Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield are young and talented, but neither of them deliver a consistent pass rush for this team. They combined for 11 sacks last season (seven for Acho) but sack numbers can be misleading; this is one of those cases. Acho can be a legitimate starter in this league as he develops, but Schofield needs to improve and looks more like a decent backup than a starter. Losing Joey Porter actually helped the team, as he was on the decline and is easily worse than Acho and Schofield. However, the Cardinals lack depth at the position with veteran and former Steeler Clark Haggans being one of the most impotent pass rushers out there. Schofield definitely deserves to be named the starter over Haggans, and I hope he makes good on his prediction of double digit sacks and makes me look bad. More importantly, he needs to deliver consistent pressure from the outside.
Inside linebacker Daryl Washington emerged as one of the best interior linebackers in the NFL last season. He is an absolute beast against the run after recording 107 tackles with 16 for a loss. He does an excellent job of getting pressure up the middle, and he deserves the contract extension. Washington is one of the most talented players on this team, and there is still more to come as he is just 25.
The other inside linebacker spot, however, is one of great concern for the Cardinals. Starting at the position is Paris Lenon, who received a salary bump for playing time. Why? Well, he only took about over 1,100 snaps and looked awful in the process. At 35 next year, Lenon should be a veteran backup and did not justify the gaudy numbers of snaps he took. The problem is that former oft-injured Philadelphia Eagles star Stewart Bradley has not transitioned well to the Cardinals 3-4 and received minimal snaps last year. He is a better player than Lenon, but the road to recovery has not gone well for Bradley. For now, Lenon is the starter and Bradley is entrenched as the backup.
Richard Marshall was one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL while with the Carolina Panthers, and he had an interesting year for the Arizona Cardinals in 2011. While the speedy Marshall barely gave up a catch, but he was getting burned when he did give up a catch. In the end, Marshall picked off three passes and tipped 11 and is now a Miami Dolphin.
Replacing him is former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay, who is locked in a big position battle with rookie Jamell Fleming, Greg Toler, and A.J. Jefferson. Toler is coming off of a season-ending ACL injury, but he could end up being the No. 1 starter if he proves to be healthy and effective. If that happens, expect the solid William Gay to be the team’s nickel corner. Jefferson isn’t a threat to win the job at all, as he is an extremely inconsistent player who deserved to get benched last season. Fleming has looked terrific this offeseason and is a speedy corner who is giving the vets a run for their money. This is one rookie to watch for in the future.
The man manning the other cornerback spot is none other than last year’s electrifying rookie returner Patrick Peterson. His task will be going head-to-head with the other team’s best receivers, and he will need to prove that he is up to the task. Peterson is already one of the best returners in the NFL, but the lightning-in-a-bottle LSU product still has some things to prove coverage-wise. He has the tools and upside to succeed, but he did get beat more often than he would have liked as a rookie. Still, that’s a common struggle among rookie corners, and Peterson showed flashes of dominance last season down the stretch. That’s the most important thing, and he really looks like a breakout player.
Adrian Wilson is a warrior and is still one of the best safeties in the league at the age of 32. The career Cardinal is the player who I associate with this franchise; not Larry Fitzgerald. Sure Fitz is the team’s star, but Wilson has been with the team for so long and has been playing at a high level for so long. Last season, he shut down opposing pass-catchers with his tremendous skills in coverage, and the SS was once again stout in run support. Free safety Kerry Rhodes and Wilson make up one of the better safety combos in the league, with both being top pass-rushing safeties. Like Wilson, Rhodes is also strong in coverage, but I must note that Rhodes is a poor tackle who struggles in run support.
Some people are speculating that head coach Ken Wisenhunt is on the hot seat, but that is far from the truth. The players greatly respect Wisenhunt’s leadership, and the only time the Cardinals had a losing record under him was when they went 5-11 with Derek Anderson as their leading passer; not a fair evaluation of Wisenhunt’s coaching ability at all. Ray Horton did a good job as the team’s defensive coordinator last season, and the defense allowed the tenth lowest net yards per pass and were in the middle-of-the-pack in yards per carry against.
For Wisenhunt, the expectation this year is to get to .500 again and contend for a Wild Card spot if Kolb improves in his second year as a full-time starter. The most important thing is that he has the respect of the players and the organization, and he helped the Cards right the ship when things were looking bleak after an awful 1-6 start. Then again, maybe the best argument for why Wisenhunt is a good football coach is the fact that he led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl.
Rob Housler. He could be the next great pass-catching tight end in this league, and the Arizona Cardinals have been giving him extra work in OTAs and all the confidence and resources he needs to improve. In fact, they could build their offense around him if he has some early success. If you’re looking for the next Jimmy Graham, look no further than Housler.
2012 Prediction 8-8
According to Pro Football Reference’s Expected W-L statistic, the Arizona Cardinals should have been 7-9. They posted a negative point differential, mainly due to their offensive futility (read: their quarterbacks stunk). The Cardinals should have the same record in 2012, because the roster is virtually unchanged with the exception of the addition of three quality rookies and a new starting CB. The offensive line looks better, and the team should be an “expected” win better than last year. If Kolb is finally able to put things together, then the Cardinals could have an outside shot at making the playoffs.
The Arizona Cardinals didn’t have much money available to spend going to the offseason, so they focused on making smart draft picks and shoring up their depth with cheap signings. The defensive line is one of the best in the NFL, the running game looks good, they have a great safety tandem, Daryl Washingotn is a monster, and Larry Fitzgerald will continue to produce. The offensive line looks deeper, but it’s still a weak point on the team. If Housler and Michael Floyd can emerge, then the receivers will look really good and make Kevin Kolb look better. A lot rests on Kolb’s shoulders, and players on the offensive line need to step up to protect Kolb better. The tackles are especially key, and I expect Massie to make himself the new starting right tackle at some point. Levi Brown will probably prove that his second-half in 2011 was a fluke, but you never know. The success of this team hinges on a select few players. Housler, Massie, and Floyd should be positives, but Schofield, Kolb, and Brown look like three players who might still disappoint. There’s a lot of optimism surrounding a few players on this team, and it’s time to see if these players can prove themselves.
Tags: Adrian Wilson Arizona Cardinals Calais Campbell Darnell Dockett Greg Toler John Skelton Ken Wisenhunt Kerry Rhodes Kevin Kolb Pittsburgh Steelers Rex Hadnot Robert Housler Ryan Williams Seattle Seahawks William Gay