Arizona Cards Quietly Sneaking Up On Rest Of NFC West

Posted: 03/29/2014 in Team News, What's New
Tags: ,

The track is bustling with excitement and anticipation. Everyone has their ticket in hand and eyes forward as the horses make their way to the starting gate. Each horse starts from the same place but has a different approach to the race. But none catch your eye quite like the dark horse. The one nobody had accounted for up until now. The one people scout out of the corner of their eye. Something about it, incessantly just keeps you from looking away.

As the month of March is coming to a close, the free agency period of the NFL is roughly half over and team identities for next season are slowly but steadily starting to develop. One team not being talked about, that should carry serious consideration for everyone’s dark horse pick is the Arizona Cardinals.

Nestled in the same division as the world champion 13-3 Seattle Seahawks and Jim Harbaugh’s powerful 12-4 San Francisco 49ers squad, it is easy to forget that the Cardinals just barely missed the playoffs last year after finishing with an impressive 10-6 record in head coach Bruce Arians’ first season at the helm. Which was only good enough for third place in the NFC West, regarded by many as the toughest and most “hard-nosed” division in all of football.

Already, the offseason has been a rough one on Arizona. First they found out that their leading rusher, 2008 first-round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall has decided to retire at the fresh, young age of 26, smack dab in the middle of his prime. Then the team lost their top two leading tacklers and veteran leaders on defense, middle linebacker Karlos Dansby and strong safety Yeremiah Bell, to free agency. Bell is still available, however, he remains unsigned. All of this is adversity is added onto the suspense of recovering (rookie) free-safety Tyrann Mathieu, who tore his left ACL and LCL in a matchup versus the St. Louis Rams during week 14 of the regular season. His passion and playmaking ability electrified the Arizona locker room as soon as he arrived from the draft last May. He finished fourth on the team in total tackles and started in 11 games, according to Pro Football Reference. The Cardinals organization is hoping and praying that Mathieu, nicknamed the “Honeybadger” from his star studded days at LSU, can return and be the same productive player he was before the brutal injury.

But this team is not ready to simply keel over and play dead. It isn’t in the team’s makeup. Bruce Arians is a heck of a motivator and that is part of the reason he eventually got the job in Arizona. The year before he was hired,  in 2012, Arians who had no prior head coaching experience was asked to be the interim coach for the Indianapolis Colts when Chuck Pagano was forced to leave the sidelines because he was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia in Week 5. Arians didn’t flinch, guiding the franchise to a 9-3 mark from that point on and then into the playoffs. If anyone can get this Cardinals team to where they want to go, they have the right man for the job.

So knowing that they already have the coach they need, owner Bill Bidwill and general manager Steve Keim got the checkbook out and went to work on the roster, intent on filling those holes discussed above. What they found was a group of solid role players to compliment their playoff-ready core of talent.

To replace Mendenhall, the Cardinals needed to find someone who can give them the 700 yards and eight touchdowns that he produced this past season. Mendenhall shared the load with teammate Andre Ellington who eclipsed 1000 total yards and had 4 total touchdowns in a remarkable rookie campaign. He will surely fill a more prominent role with Mendenhall gone, but he will still need some help because of his fragile frame, he can’t carry the full load without risking injury. The Cardinals searched around and found former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer on the market. Dwyer did not have the most fascinating season last year, with a paltry 197 yards and zero touchdowns. But he is a young, bruising, 235 pound tailback that provides a nice change of pace to Andre Ellington and a battering ram for third and short situations. Who, by the way, hails from Coach Arians’ former team: the Pittsburgh Steelers. So Arians and Dwyer are already well aquainted. The backfield dynamic is completely different in Arizona than it was across the country in Pittsburgh so I think the signing will pan out nicely for the Cards. Dywer is only 24 years old and had his best season as a pro just one year ago when he rushed for over 600 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Arizona will likely add another tailback in the draft, but expect it to be a late pick or even an undrafted free agent, as the team has made it perfectly clear that they are comfortable with Stepfan Taylor being their number three option.

To fill the other spots vacated by Dansby and Bell, Arizona then resigned Matt Shaughnessy and picked up cornerback Antonio Cromartie. Shaughnessy is a tough player that rarely got noticed because he had played his whole career up until last year with the lowly Oakland Raiders, sticking with them through four consecutive years of their seemingly neverending “rebuilding process”. Last year  he got his shot, out in Arizona to show what he can do. An everyday starter the past two years, he has become a solid contributor to his new team. Last year Shaughnessy started 12 games for Arizona.

Cromartie meanwhile has been recently signed away from the New York Jets. Cromartie had a down year in 2013 but still managed to make the Pro Bowl. He is a veteran lockdown corner when healthy, that will easily transition into playing with a superstar caliber teammate Patrick Peterson on the other side of the field. Cromartie played several seasons with Darrelle Revis in New York, so he knows exactly the situation he is in, his role in it, and how to perform well in the system. After the Cromartie signing, Arizona fields one of the more formidable defensive backfields in the league. The injury prone unit just has to stay healthy.

Other players that Arizona has acquired in the last 30 days are; defensive end Frostee Rucker, guard Ted Larsen, tight ends Jake Ballard and John Carlson, wide receiver Tedd Ginn Jr and left tackle Jared Veldheer.

Obviously, part of the offseason plan is to help out quarterback Carson Palmer. To do this, the Cardinals made a huge impact signing both literally and figuratively when they inked 6’8″ 322 pound behemoth Jared Veldheer to a deal. He is the precisely the kind of blindside protector they lacked last year, which left Carson sprawled out on his back on far too many occasions. Everything starts up front, and signing a legitimate blindside protector opens up the offense for everyone else. The Cards were then able to go out and get some weapons for Palmer to throw to. With Ballard, Carlson and Ginn added to the duo of current wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, Palmer should have a few more options available to him when he drops back to pass. Tedd Ginn is also absolutely lightning on special teams. Frostee Rucker is mostly a depth signing, but it’s an important one that adds a fresh body to the defensive line rotation.

Undoubtedly, Arizona must add more playmakers in the draft if they want to seriously contend in that cutthroat division. One more wide receiver to draw the double-teams off of Larry Fitzgerald is key, and I don’t see a wideout capable enough for that role on the roster yet. However, that may be the only thing this team is really lacking in order to get into the postseason. The defense is lined up and down with marquee talent such as Pat Peterson, Calais Campbell, John Abraham, Daryl Washington and Darnell Dockett. The offense has sured up the all-important blindside spot with the Veldheer deal done, and their running backs have a rotation that goes three deep. They fortified the special teams too, resigning fan-favorite veteran kicker Jay Feely and adding Pro Bowl kick returner Ted Ginn to the lineup. If Carson Palmer is finally ready to let it rip like he once did in Cincinnati and like the coach believes he still can, this team has as high of a ceiling as they want it to be going into 2014.

With it’s legs coiled and ready, ears tucked back, nostrils flaring, the dark horse waits itching to fire out of the gate at the first sound of the gun. Until then, we wait. Up in the stands, left to wonder what color, what number that horse may be wearing. There may not be a clear view of it yet, but from this vantage point it’s beginning to look like it wears Arizona red, reminiscent of the Arizona we remember from 2008. When they shocked everyone and last reached the Super Bowl.

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