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How to fear the 2018 Arizona Cardinals

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Arizona Cardinals v Miami Dolphins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

The success of the 2018 Arizona Cardinals may come down not to their quarterback(s) necessarily, but the play of the offensive line. If those five players can show a significant improvement over the five of last season, suddenly the rest of the Cardinals will start to look pretty good — or at least we’ll be reminded that the rest of the Cardinals, in many cases, have already been very good for years.

It’ll just be a real struggle for Arizona’s offensive line to both make that leap and stay on the field for the whole season.

PFF ranked the Cardinals as having the 27th-best offensive line headed into next season after slotting them at 31 at the end of the last one. This is what they had to say about left tackle D.J. Humphries, left guard Mike Iupati, center A.Q. Shipley, right guard Justin Pugh, and right tackle Andre Smith:

This group will look much different than the 2017 version – which can’t be a bad thing. The only problem is that this group – more than maybe any other in the NFL – has serious injury concerns. Almost every starter has missed significant time in each of the past two seasons and the Cardinals don’t exactly have quality depth to make up for it. If Mike Iupati, Justin Pugh and Andre Smith all return back to their career-best form, this could be a top-10 group. The odds of that happening, or even them playing all 16 games, seems incredibly slim after all the injuries they’ve suffered.

Humphries, a first round pick in 2015, has played in 18 of a possible 48 games in his career, including just five starts in 2017; Iupati missed all but one game last season; Pugh missed half of 2017 with the New York Giants after missing five games the year before; Smith landed on IR after four games with the Minnesota Vikings in 2016 and also finished last season with the Cincinnati Bengals on IR.

Backing them up are players like rookie third round pick Mason Cole at guard, as well as Evan Boehm, Will Holden, John Wetzel, Vinston Painter, Daniel Munyer, and Josh Allen. Any gems in there? Who knows at this point, but it’s that uncertainty, as well as the uncertainty of the injuries plus the fact that players like Iupati and Smith aren’t exactly shining stars in recent years, that must give Arizona fans pause about their chances next season. However, if that unit does play like a top-10 offensive line, that’s when the rest of the team may be able to start to shine.

Even if the quarterback position is one of the more underwhelming spots on the roster.

I don’t expect much from Sam Bradford or Josh Rosen, but in a controlled environment, Bradford can prove to not be a “problem” for the offense, such as when he led the NFL in completion percentage in 2016. He just won’t lead an offense beyond their expected abilities. If he can stay healthy, Bradford is decent, but I still expect him to be the fourth-best quarterback in the division. It’s impossible to say what Rosen is at this point, and I’ll just leave it at that.

In a perfect situation for them, the Cardinals overcome a Blake Bortles-esque quarterback performance just like the Jacksonville Jaguars did, which may be enough given the talent at running back and defense.

David Johnson returns after missing last season, but he wants more assurance that he’s going to be taken care of financially given the nature of the position that caused him to fear for his career recently. Johnson was perhaps the best running back in the NFL in 2016, so it’s fair to say he’ll be a dangerous weapon in the NFC West if the offensive line gives him even more opportunities. Larry Fitzgerald, who has 325 receptions over the last three seasons, also remains one of the most difficult receivers to keep away from the ball and he’s probably getting an upgrade from Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton.

J.J. Nelson, Chad Williams, and free agent signee Brice Butler will fight for targets around Fitzgerald, but rookie second round pick Christian Kirk could be the guy who ends up second in targets, and maybe does even more with his opportunities than the future Hall of Famer. Tight end (Jermaine Gresham, in recovery from a torn Achilles as it is, and Ricky Seals-Jones) is likely a weakness.

Defensively, it’s pretty simple: Arizona ranked fourth in DVOA in 2017, including first against the run. Now, having an elite run defense is not all that important when compared to an elite pass defense, but the Cards still ranked 10th in that category and much of the talent remains intact: Chandler Jones, Budda Baker, and Patrick Peterson are the top three. Markus Golden returns after missing 12 games last season. Deone Bucannon, Corey Peters, and Antoine Bethea have shown the ability to have above-average years in the past. Haason Reddick and Robert Nkemdiche are former first round picks with promise and potential left in the tank.

I can imagine potential issues at cornerback opposite of Peterson, or defensive line, or even linebacker, but it’s not hard to see this as a top-five unit again. However, they’ll likely to need to improve against the pass and we can’t weigh them too heavily in what they do against the run; it just doesn’t matter that much.

Of course, all of this is now being run by head coach Steve Wilks, a former defensive backs coach for Washington, the Chicago Bears, San Diego Chargers, and Carolina Panthers. We can’t really just a rookie head coach any differently than we would a rookie first round pick: they were selected for a reason but you just don’t know what’s going to happen until it does. Is Wilks a good head coach? We’ll find out soon.

His success will depend on a lot of things, but how he (and offensive line coach Ray Brown, who has helped mold players like Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner recently) does with the five guys blocking for Bradford and Johnson may be the most important factor for how things go with the Cardinals in 2018.