NFL

Five Critical Questions Facing the Arizona Cardinals

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The Cardinals are a tough team to get a read on. Arizona does not get much recognition as a legitimate Super Bowl threat — likely because it shares a division with the two-time defending NFC Champions — but the Cardinals boasted a league-best 8-1 record through Week 10 last season.

It was in Week 10 that Carson Palmer went down with a season-ending ACL injury. Two weeks later, starting running back Andre Ellington (hernia) joined him on injured-reserve. That was the beginning of the end for the Cardinals, who lost five of their final seven games, including a Wild Card defeat in Carolina.

Can the Cardinals recapture the magic that lifted last year’s squad to such a fantastic start? Or what that 9-1 opening stretch just a mirage? The following five questions will help make that determination.

Can the quarterbacks stay upright?

In Arizona’s playoff loss to the Panthers, practice squad call-up Ryan Lindley was the starting quarterback. Yet the Cardinals did nothing to fortify their depth at the position.

There was never any question Palmer would return as the starting quarterback after he signed a three-year, $50 million extension shortly before getting injured. But it is surprising Arizona did not sign a veteran to compete with Drew Stanton for the No. 2 role after Stanton completed just 55 percent of his passes last season.

Tarvaris Jackson (Seattle) and Colt McCoy (Washington) re-signed with their respective teams on one-year, $1.5 million deals. It’s tough to believe the Cardinals could not have bested one of those offers.

It is improbable that Arizona’s top two quarterbacks will get injured two years in a row — that’s about as likely as getting attacked by a shark over Fourth of July weekend. But with Shark Week starting on July 5, Cardinals fans have every right to worry.

Arians knows that if Palmer goes down again, opponents will smell blood in the water.

“[Palmer] knows the clock’s ticking,” Arians told the team’s official website back in May. “It is for a lot of guys on this team. You get a window to make a run and most of it depends on your quarterback. Right now, it’s our window. There is a sense of urgency.”

Can the running game get unglued? 

Ellington (5’9”, 199 pounds) is not built to be an every-down back. Arians may refute that suggestion, as he wants to give the explosive Clemson product as many touches as possible, but Ellington’s injury-plagued 2014 season proves he needs a lighter workload.

Enter David Johnson, who was selected by the Cardinals in the third round out of Northern Iowa. Johnson (6’1”, 224 pounds) is a powerful runner with good speed and superb hands. If he and Ellington can split carries effectively, it will spark a running game that averaged a league-low 3.3 yards per carry last season. But if Johnson struggles with the transition from the Missouri Valley Conference to the NFL, Ellington could be in for another grind.

No matter who is toting the ball, running room should be easier to come by thanks to the arrivals of free agent Mike Iupati (San Francisco) and first-round pick D.J. Humphries (Florida). There is still remains a serious question on the offensive line, though: Can former No. 7 overall pick Jonathan Cooper finally stay healthy and play up to his massive potential?

Does Larry Fitzgerald have one more big year in him?  

It’s amazing to think Fitzgerald has been held under the 1,000-yard threshold in three consecutive seasons. In 2014, he caught 63 passes for 784 yards, his lowest numbers since his rookie season back in 2004. He also scored just two touchdowns after finding the end zone 10 times the season prior.

Part of the problem is how the Cardinals utilize Fitzgerald. He is used the same way Arians used to deploy Hines Ward in Pittsburgh, spending ample time in the slot and often blocking down on linebackers. There are other factors, as well, such as Fitzgerald’s age (31) and Arizona’s turnstile under center.

The pressing question is this: Can Fitzgerald and Arians come together to squeeze one more dominant season from the future Hall of Famer?

Michael Floyd has taken over as Arizona’s No. 1 receiver, but Floyd has struggled recently with conditioning issues and inconsistent hands. The Cardinals shopped Floyd around the league earlier this offseason, showing how little trust the organization has in the former Golden Domer.

Despite all the turmoil, Floyd should be good for 60 catches and 1,000 yards. The key is getting Fitzgerald to match or surpass those numbers so that Palmer has the luxury of attacking every part of the field.

Can James Bettcher carry on what Todd Bowles started? 

Bowles coached his way into a promotion, earning the head coaching job with the New York Jets. He leaves behind some big shoes to fill, as his defenses were consistently disciplined, physical and aggressive.

Looking to maintain that tradition is Bettcher, who moves up after spending the last two seasons coaching Arizona’s outside linebackers. It was somewhat of a thankless role, as the Cardinals have lacked edge rushers over the last few years and have been forced to generate a pass rush through heavy blitzing.

Bettcher insists not much will change with him calling the shots.

“It’s their defense,” said Bettcher of his players. “It ain’t my defense, it’s their defense.”

Even if that’s the case, ownership of the defense is changing hands after a busy offseason. That is especially true on the defensive line, where Dan Williams and Darnell Dockett are out and Corey Peters and Cory Redding are in. It will be up to Bettcher to make sure all the cogs run together smoothly, which leads us to the final looming question …

Can Jerraud Powers replace Antonio Cromartie? 

Cromartie is back to earning his child support money in the Big Apple, which leaves a void in Arizona’s secondary. Cromartie’s game is not without its holes, but he comes off a Pro Bowl season that included three interceptions (plus one more in the playoffs). That productivity has to be replaced.

Stepping into Cromartie’s starting spot is Powers, another of Arians’ former Colts players now shining in the desert. And according to the ever optimistic Arians, no drop-off is expected.

“[Powers] probably played better in pass coverage than Cro did and he’s a better tackler,” Arians said.

The numbers back that up, but only to an extent. Powers rated better in coverage than Cromartie last season, according to Pro Football Focus (+5.0 compared to 0.0), but Powers was protected by playing on the inside and was pitted against lesser receivers. When Powers played on the outside in 2013, he was -0.9.

One thing is for sure: with Patrick Peterson patrolling the other side of the field, Powers will be given plenty of opportunities to reward Arians’ confidence. What he does with those opportunities will go a long way towards determining Arizona’s success on that side of the ball.

What do you expect from the Cardinals? Discuss with Michael Lombardo during his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … you can ask your question now


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.