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NFC West camp preview: Healthy Palmer key for Cardinals

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals won 21 games the past two seasons, and coaches and management agree that the current roster is deeper in talent than the previous two seasons.

That doesn’t mean the Cardinals don’t have issues. Every team does, especially at the start of training camp.

There are two big ones for the Cardinals: the health of quarterback Carson Palmer and the inexperience of defensive coordinator James Bettcher.

First, Palmer. He appears to be fully recovered from the ACL tear suffered in week 10 against the Rams. The Cardinals need a healthy Palmer. Over the last two seasons, they are 16-6 in his starts and 5-5 in other games.

Earlier this month, Palmer told the team’s website that he no longer even thinks of the knee that was surgically repaired. At 34, he’s in the best shape of his career, and he now knows all the intricacies of head coach Bruce Arians’ offense. And there are many of those.

“I’m not even thinking about my knee,” he told the team’s website earlier this month. “I’m still rehabbing just to be on the safe side of things but I don’t need to be at rehab. I’m full-go in the weight room, full-go on the field, and until it’s brought up, I haven’t thought about what I’m not doing because I’m doing everything I was doing.”

Palmer knows his time is running short in the NFL. The Cardinals were heading to great things in 2014 when he suffered the knee injury, and it devastated him to miss the season.

In his three offseasons as general manager, Steve Keim has concentrated on improving the offensive line. He wanted to put together a more athletic and powerful group. And this one could be the best one the team has had since moving to Arizona in 1988.

Tackle Jared Veldheer and guard Mike Iupati give Arizona a strong left side of the line. If right guard Jonathan Cooper can stay healthy — a big if — he and tackle Bobby Massie should combine for a strong left side.

The question is at center, where A.Q. Shipley is trying to hold off Ted Larsen.

Defensively, the biggest question is what kind of job Bettcher will do. He was promoted from outside linebackers coach to defensive coordinator when Todd Bowles took the Jets’ head coaching job. Bettcher, 37, has not been a coordinator at any level, and this is just his fourth season in the NFL.

But Arians has an eye for coaching talent and has unwavering faith that Bettcher has what it takes.

Still, the players loved Bowles and believed in every call he made. That’s hard to replace, and it might take Bettcher some time to find himself as a coordinator and play-caller.

CAMP CALENDAR

July 31: Players report

Aug. 1: First practice

Aug. 28: Camp ends

–Team strength: Safety.

The Cardinals have both talent and depth. For now, Rashad Johnson and Deone Bucannon are the starters, but Tyrann Mathieu, Tony Jefferson and Chris Clemons also have starting experience. Bucannon and Mathieu are flexible enough to use in unique ways in sub-packages. Mathieu is excellent at roving deep in the secondary, but he also is an accomplished nickel corner. Bucannon played well last year as a middle linebacker in nickel and dime packages.

–Breakout player: Guard Jonathan Cooper.

He was the seventh overall pick in 2013 and has contributed almost nothing in his first two seasons because of injuries. Last spring, he seemed more confident in himself. He’s been moved to the right side, where he worked all offseason. Coaches thought he finally looked like a first-round pick.

–Work in progress: Tight end.

John Carlson’s unexpected retirement this spring left the team with little experience at tight end. Darren Fells, a converted basketball player, started five games a year ago. Troy Niklas, a second-round pick in 2014, played in seven games before going on injured reserve. Those two were the most experienced tight ends on the roster until Jermaine Gresham signed just before the start of camp. Gresham, formerly with the Bengals, got little action in free agency because of a back problem.


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