Larry Fitzgerald. Chandler Jones. David Johnson. Patrick Peterson. Justin Pugh. Budda Baker. That’s maybe just the group of top-tier or recently-top-tier players on the Arizona Cardinals, and it’s a pretty good list.
The second tier might include Markus Golden, Deone Bucannon, Haason Reddick, Mike Iupati, D.J. Humphries, Jermaine Gresham, Robert Nkemdiche, Antoine Bethea, plus rookies Josh Rosen and Christian Kirk, so there looks to be some more quality players in there somewhere as well. Seven of those names play on a defense that surprisingly finished fourth in DVOA and first against the run.
Yet somehow it still seems like the Cardinals will be among the worst teams that the Seattle Seahawks face next season, beginning in Week 4 in Arizona. This will be the Seahawks third road game of the year already.
The biggest reason for the Cardinals’ likely placement at the top of the 2019 draft is Sam Bradford. Even if Bradford played half as good as his fans think he is (he won’t), he’s still likely going to be one of the worst three quarterbacks in the NFC. The conference is loaded at quarterback, so much so that Bradford’s competition for “worst in the conference” includes Mitchell Trubisky, Eli Manning, Alex Smith, Jameis Winston, and Jared Goff. Where would you place Bradford among those other five?
He’s maybe better than Trubisky and Manning.
Even if Arizona is just waiting out for the right moment to begin Rosen’s career, and that moment comes by Week 4, Rosen’s not likely going to play at a high level during his rookie season. Players are adapting to the league quicker and quicker these days, but the odds say that Rosen won’t be at a high-quality pro level until 2019 at the soonest.
By most measures, the Cardinals will be ranked near the bottom of the conference in quarterback play (barring something unforeseen, like with Case Keenum in 2017, of course) and that’s why it seems to me they’re headed for 3-5 wins despite their top-five defense. They still do have talent on both sides of the ball.
Johnson returns after missing a season, and two years after he had 2,118 total yards and 20 touchdowns. He may even be returning to a better o-line than he had then. Fitzgerald is not the receiver he once was, but he is a receiver who has caught 325 balls over the last three years anyway. He turns 35 in August but Fitzgerald likely has the skillset to remain effective into his late-30s, like Jerry Rice did. The player that the Cards have been really looking for though is a high-end number two and Kirk looks like he could be a good one. Even still, receivers often need a year to catch up too, so a big season from a rookie with a lower-tiered quarterback seems unlikely.
The reason the o-line could be improved is the alleged improvement of tackle D.J. Humphries last season, though he did miss 11 games with injury. Right guard also got an upgrade with the signing of Pugh to a $45 million contract. Iupati agreed to take a paycut after missing basically all of last season, so his return could benefit the line too if he’s healthy. I wouldn’t call it a great offensive line, but it could settle in as an average one if all goes right.
Defensively, Arizona does have enough talent to produce at a high level, obviously.
Jones may be the best defensive player in football, while Peterson certainly lays claim to some honorary titles of his own. There are fun players around them too (Reddick, Budda, Bucannnon, Golden) but also legitimate concerns about several key starters and a lack of depth. Not that all of these are huge losses, but among those the Cardinals must replace are Karlos Dansby, Tyrann Mathieu, Tavon Branch, Tramon Williams, Frostee Rucker, Justin Bethel, and Kareem Martin.
The defensive line is Nkemdiche, Corey Peters, and Olsen Pierre. Golden missed most of 2017, Nkemdiche has not played up to the hype, Bucannon may have peaked early, Reddick’s rookie season was not good, and the secondary looks like it may have major holes at free safety and cornerback opposite of Peterson.
Repeating their top-5 finish in DVOA would be even more surprising than it was a year ago.
Is there a universe where the 2018 Cardinals win 13 games? Sure. New offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has a second-half-of-career resurgence, Johnson repeats his 2016 success, which creates opportunities for Bradford (or Rosen), who develops immediate chemistry with Fitzgerald and Kirk, and gives Arizona an offense not unlike what the LA Rams found under Sean McVay.
Defensively, nothing much changes and Jones win Defensive Player of the Year. Golden gets back to double-digit sacks, Nkemdiche, Reddick, Bucannon all flash what made them first round picks, Baker is a Pro Bowl strong safety. Certainly, the Cardinals have breakout potential.
But dealing in the more likely reality, Arizona will finish in last place in the NFC West. Road divisional games aren’t typically easy, but right now this looks like the Seahawks’ most likely win of the first four.
A loss may signal Seattle’s worst case fears.
Do you expect the Seahawks to beat the Cardinals in AZ?
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Will Josh Rosen be a long-term answer at QB for AZ?
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