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NFC West Preview: Five storylines to watch for the Arizona Cardinals

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Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

With less than two months ago before the first preseason game of the 2017 NFL season, I figured now is a good time to look at developing storylines for our NFC West rivals. I’ll start things off with last season’s runner-up, the Arizona Cardinals.

How much does Carson Palmer have left?

Two years ago, Carson Palmer had a strong case for winning league MVP over Cam Newton. Last year was still statistically a pretty good one for Palmer, but he also took an absolute beating in the backfield, getting sacked 40 times and suffering a concussion. Palmer has been in the league since 2003 and will be 38 by the time the regular season is over. Bruce Arians says his arm is stronger than ever, but of course he’s going to say that. Arians is aggressive to a fault, but depending on your measurements for “explosive plays,” 25+ yard passes for Arizona were down from 2015, and in fact the lowest in the Arians era. Arizona loves the vertical passing game, but what good is it if Palmer plays like an old quarterback behind what is already a less-than-stellar offensive line?

Does the offense permanently run through David Johnson now?

David Johnson is a tremendous player and the third-year man is already arguably one of the five best running backs in football. No RB was more valuable as a receiver than him in 2016, and he managed at least 100 scrimmage yards in every game except the last one, in which he suffered a knee injury. He was second behind Larry Fitzgerald for the team-high mark in pass receptions, and you’d have to go back to the days when the Cards were in St. Louis to find a running back who had more single-season rushing yards than Johnson’s 1,239 in 2016.

Johnson touched the ball 373 times last season, much of it because Chris Johnson’s season-ending injury in October left them without even halfway decent depth. Andre Ellington has since been shifted to wide receiver, so that leaves Arizona with Kerwynn Williams and fifth-round rookie pick T.J. Logan as Johnson’s backups.

While Palmer isn’t going to be there much longer, David Johnson figures to be the franchise running back that Arizona has long sought, and that’s not good news for Seahawks fans.

The special teams can’t get any worse than that, can it?

I don’t want to say that the Cardinals missed out on a playoff spot because of special teams, but they absolutely were major liabilities in multiple losses. Following a shaky snap, Chandler Catanzaro missed the game-winning field goal against New England in week 1, and that set the tone for the entire season.

Arizona finished an appalling 30th in special teams DVOA, including giving up a 104-yard kick return for a touchdown against Minnesota, botching a field goal snap that led to a fumble return touchdown, seven missed field goals, four missed extra points (with one returned for a crucial two points against Miami), and uh ... the entire 6-6 tie with the Seahawks speaks for itself. Not only did Arizona change its longsnapper midseason, but they also got rid of punter Ryan Quigley for Matt Wile, as they ranked near the bottom in punt coverage. Wile remains on the team, but Catanzaro is now on the Jets. The seemingly ageless Phil Dawson is Arizona’s new placekicker, so we’ll see if the tweaks are enough to give Arizona’s much-maligned special teams unit a lift.

The health of Honey Badger

Tyrann Mathieu is one of my favorite non-Seahawks players to watch, and that’s mostly because he ticks the boxes that would’ve otherwise made him a fit on the Seahawks defense. Sadly, injuries have been a major problem for him throughout his career. He tore his ACL and LCL in 2013, which caused him to miss the start of 2014, in which he missed time with a thumb problem. His outstanding 2015 campaign ended with a torn ACL in the third-to-last game of the year, and his 2016 ended prematurely due to an ongoing shoulder problem. When healthy, he’s one of the top safeties in the league, but his career is trending dangerously into Bob Sanders territory. This season more than ever, Arizona can’t really afford for him to miss time, which brings me to the final storyline...

Is the defense (finally) in for a major regression?

Much to my surprise, Arizona’s defense was 3rd in DVOA even though it didn’t feel like this was one of their better seasons. Nevertheless, they’ve been ranked in the top-10 DVOA for the entirety of Russell Wilson’s career, which obviously includes the end of Ken Whisenhunt’s tenure.

Arizona lost a lot of defensive players, and I do mean a lot. Calais Campbell is the obvious biggest loss (literally and figuratively), but CB2 Marcus Cooper jetted for Chicago, linebacker Kevin Minter signed with Cincinnati, backup linebacker Alex Okafor is in New Orleans, while safeties Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger are respectively with Baltimore and Washington. It’s not all doom and gloom, as Minter has been replaced by first-round draft pick Haason Reddick, while second-rounder Budda Baker offsets some of the depth concerns at safety. The only veterans Arizona picked up in the offseason are aging strong safety Antoine Bethea, an ancient and well past-his-prime Karlos Dansby, and Pittsburgh Steelers draft bust Jarvis Jones.

In the secondary, “Failure in progress” Justin Bethel is currently the favorite to be opposite Patrick Peterson at starting cornerback. Brandon Williams, last year’s third-round pick, started week 1, was immediately roasted, and found himself benched. I really believe this is the weakest Arizona’s secondary has been under Arians.

Chandler Jones is going to be Chandler Jones, so I don’t expect anything to change on that front. Ditto for Markus Golden, who has blossomed into a dangerous pass rusher. But what about Robert Nkemdiche? He was Arizona’s first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and was hardly on the field (contributing virtually nothing statistically when he did play). Arians expressed his disappointment with Nkemdiche’s attitude more than his actual play. Losing Campbell is bad enough, but getting no production out of your prized top-pick is something Arizona can’t afford to have on their front four heading into this season.

Don’t get me wrong, Arizona still has considerable defensive talent, but they’ve clearly lost more value than they’ve gained. Will we finally see Arizona’s defense drop out of the top-10? For Russell Wilson’s sake, I hope so.

Arizona Cardinals Schedule

at Lions (10 AM)
at Colts (10 AM)
vs. Cowboys (5:30 PM, Monday Night Football)
vs. 49ers (1:05 PM)
at Eagles (10 AM)
vs. Buccaneers (1:05 PM)
at Rams (10 AM, London)
Bye (October 29th)
at 49ers (1:05 PM)
vs. Seahawks (5:25 PM, Thursday Night Football)
at Texans (10 AM)
vs. Jaguars (1:25 PM)
vs. Rams (1:25 PM)
vs. Titans (1:05 PM)
at Redskins (10 AM)
vs. Giants (1:25 PM)
at Seahawks (1:25 PM)