Looking back at the 2016 Arizona Cardinals season one word sums it up the best, awful. Special teams was a mess, Carson Palmer could not get the ball downfield, All-pros on the team could not stay healthy and at times no one would step up and make a big play when the Cardinals needed it most.
Coming into the 2017 season, Arizona knows that the window of opportunity is closing for the trio of quarterback Palmer, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and head coach Bruce Arians. The Cardinals hope to be the team that was considered a playoff contender from a couple seasons ago.
New players filling in important roles
In the offseason, Arizona would lose several key players at key positions, including defensive lineman Calais Campbell and safeties Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger. Looking at what they have, Robert Nkemdiche will be the replacement for Campbell. Nkemdiche was very disruptive in the time he played in the preseason with the Cardinals hoping that carries over into the regular season.
Though Arizona added Karlos Dansby via free agency and with Deone Bucannon already on the roster, the Cardinals felt like they needed to address the inside linebacker position. The organization feels like they hit a home run with 2017 first round pick Haason Reddick.
Reddick has played mostly with the second string but has also been given time with the starting unit. Reddick has been given the task of covering running back David Johnson in practice and has had success. It will be interesting to see how Reddick develops throughout the season.
Antoine Bethea was signed to fill the void at safety but another player that has risen during training camp is 2017 second round pick Budda Baker. Baker has drawn comparisons to teammate Tyrann Mathieu.
“The thing about it is he has a lot of potential. I think in the next year or so, people won’t be comparing him to me, people will be comparing people to him.” Mathieu recently told Fox Sports Arizona. Baker will be inserted into the safety and nickel corner positions as Mathieu plays.
Health is important, can players stay healthy?
With the Cardinals ambitions to be in the playoffs, certain players must keep themselves healthy to give the Cardinals that opportunity. The list starts with Tyrann Mathieu. When healthy, Mathieu gives the Cardinals another play maker on defense. When Mathieu is out the Cardinals defense does not run like the top defense it is capable of playing like. It is a make-or-break season for Mathieu after signing him to a five-year extension a year ago.
Jared Veldheer and Mike Iupati are guys on the offensive line that needs to stay healthy. Veldheer tore his right triceps in week eight last season while Iupati missed one game last season and is currently dealing with an arm injury. Keeping Palmer upright this season will be the main goal, with these guys in the lineup that goal can be achieved. The Cardinals added depth on the offensive line but the experience that these two have do not compare to the inexperienced youth.
Deone Bucannon missed three games last season with an ankle injury. In May, he underwent ankle surgery and will be ready to go week one of the season. Though there is depth at the inside linebacker position, Bucannon’s hard, physical play is an asset to the Cardinals. Bucannon has a nose for the football as he can get to the ball carrier with urgency.
Keys to success
Avoid slow starts: The Cardinals were the last team in the NFL last season to score any points in the first quarter, taking six weeks to do so. If the Cardinals score points in the early parts of the game, it takes pressure off the offense and puts more pressure on opposing defenses. Players would gain more confidence going into the later parts of the game after making big plays necessary to score.
Execute on special teams: Last season special teams was a mess for the Cardinals. The organization addressed special teams by signing veteran kicker Phil Dawson and retained long snapper, Aaron Brewer. The season would have looked a lot different had the Cardinals executed on special teams.
Win in close games: four of the eight losses from a season ago were decided by six points of less. Either the defense could not hold the lead late in the game or the offense could not put together the game winning drive. A healthy John Brown and Jaron Brown could be the difference in 2017.
The first big game of the season comes in week three as the Cardinals host the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football. Arizona could catch a break here as the Cowboys could be without star running back Ezekiel Elliott due to a suspension.
In week seven, Arizona will be traveling to London to take on the Los Angeles Rams in their first appearance since 1983. The two NFC West rivals will meet again in week 13. The Cardinals will square off against divisional rival Seattle Seahawks in weeks 10 and 17. Last season Arizona tied with Seattle in their first meeting and won the rematch in week 16.
Former Arizona Cardinal Calais Campbell returns to the University of Phoenix Stadium for the first time as the Jacksonville Jaguars meet the Cardinals in week 12. As a member of the Washington Redskins, D.J. Swearinger will take on his former team as the Cardinals travel to the east coast in week 15.