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Football.com's Big, Bad NFL Preview Series: NFC West

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If Arizona wants to have any chance at contending in a division full of strong teams, Darnell Dockett and the defense will need to carry the franchise.(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
If Arizona wants to have any chance at contending in a division full of strong teams, Darnell Dockett and the defense will need to carry the franchise.(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Early in the 2012 season, teams such as the 49ers and Patriots jumped off to fast starts like anticipated, but a new contender emerged, as the Arizona Cardinals started with a scorching 4-0 start. One of those early victories came over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, one of the toughest venues to win at in the NFL. Experts began to consider the possibility that this franchise had the talent in place to truly contend for an NFC West championship and possibly more.

Then, reality set in for the Cardinals, as the team went on to lose 10 straight games and crash to last in the division, while the 49ers and Seahawks both went to the playoffs. Major issue along the offensive line and poor play at quarterback caught up with the team, and the defense simply couldn’t continue to win games on its own. As the season winded down, the entire team folded as the losses stacked on top of losses. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt was replaced this offseason by Bruce Arians, who hopes to bring back a winning culture after finding great success with the Colts last season.

OFFENSE: B-

Despite early season success with wins over Seattle and New England pushing the Cardinals to a 4-0 start, the team never truly got into an offensive rhythm last season. Jon Skelton started the season as the team’s starting quarterback, but an injury on opening week vaulted high-priced backup Kevin Kolb into action. Kolb played halfway decent during the first few games, but then he suffered a season-ending injury of his own. Behind a porous offensive line, Arizona signal callers struggled mightily to stay healthy, as four different players started at the position.

Kolb and Skelton were cut this offseason, and the team decided to make a trade for Carson Palmer over drafting a quarterback. The move could be the difference between contending for a wild card and being stuck with a top draft pick next season, but Palmer has struggled with turnover issues in recent seasons and the offensive line could once again be a disaster. Without much mobility to begin with, Palmer will have to release the ball quickly to avoid pass rushers, which could limit output from the team’s outstanding receiving core, including superstar receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald continues to be one of the NFL’s elite threats and has remained a dangerous target despite being deprived of a solid quarterback to throw him the ball. Kolb attempted to get Fitzgerald more involved early last season, but after he suffered a season-ending injury, the rest of the season was a wash for the All-Pro receiver. With Palmer at the helm and improved production from Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts, Fitzgerald should return to posting monster numbers this season. The passing game should be much better, even if the pass blocking remains horrendous and needing upgrades.

Palmer’s presence may not be what determines the level of success in the desert this season, however, as the running game may hold the biggest key to contending in a deep, talented NFC West division. Beanie Wells proved to be a monumental disappointment and was released, and the Cardinals opted to replace him with RB Rashard Mendenhall, a talented player who wore out his welcome in Pittsburgh. Mendenhall could give the team a huge lift in the backfield if he’s healthy and keeps focused, but if he stumbles in his new surroundings, the team doesn’t have any great backup options. Ryan Williams has great skills, but he’s suffered two severe injuries in two seasons and durability continues to be his worst enemy.

The Cardinals offensive line has been much criticized in recent seasons, but there is plenty of reason for optimism. The team brought in veteran tackle Eric Winston to serve as a mentor for young players such as Nate Potter, who was forced into a starting role too early out of necessity last year. Arizona hoped 2012 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper would help open up room for the running game as an instant starter at the left guard position, but he broke his leg late in the preseason and might miss the entire season.

DEFENSE: B

Unlike the offense, Arizona’s defense has a much brighter outlook despite struggling late last season. Boasting one of the league’s most underappreciated defenses, the Cardinals were able to ride the unit’s strong start as the team opened 4-0. However, once the defense stopped creating an abnormally high number of turnovers, the winning streak came to an abrupt halt and the defense collapsed under the pressure of trying to win without much help from the other side of the ball.  In order for Arizona to find sustained success in ’13, new coach Bruce Arians will need to keep the defense fresh by having an improved offense and creating more depth within the unit.

CB Patrick Peterson has emerged as a shutdown corner for the Cardinals, and his continued development will play a crucial role in determining how well this unit will stack up in a tough NFC West. Peterson will be expected to perform at an All-Pro level both on the field and off of it, as he will be given the duty of keeping a close eye on rookie S Tyrann Mathieu, a talented, yet troubled player who played with Peterson at LSU. Mathieu, who was known as “Honey Badger” at LSU, can be a game-changer both on defense and special teams, but off-the-field problems led to his dismissal from the Tigers’ football team last year. The versatile skill player could give the team a huge boost if he can stay out of trouble and produce on the field.

DT Darnell Dockett returns for his 10th season, and will once again provide veteran leadership up front. With Dockett and DE Calais Campbell teaming up with an otherwise solid defensive line, the Cardinals have the physical presence up front to dominate opposing lines. Campbell has shown to be inconsistent and Dockett has struggled with his temper in the past, so the unit hasn’t always lived up to its potential, but the line could be the greatest asset for this defense. The team also signed former Falcon DE John Abraham, and if he stays healthy, that move could pay great dividends for Arizona. DT Dan Williams provides a nice complement to both players and has excelled as a run stopper in recent seasons.

The team entered the off-season with question marks at linebacker, and then LB Daryl Washington was suspended for using performance enhancing drugs. Without Washington, who was one of the team’s top tacklers last season, Arizona may have major issues in the middle of its defense at the beginning of the year, as he will miss the first 4 games of ’13. Making matters worse, the team released former starter O’Brian Schofield, so the unit won’t have much stability away from Washington. On the bright side, former Viking Jasper Brinkley recorded 99 tackles last season and could become a real difference maker if he stays healthy, and the team brought back Karlos Dansby with hopes he might have a little left in the tank. Despite these additions, the Cardinals will need strong contributions from young players to fill Washington’s void, or else the rest of the defense will falter.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C+

Arizona struggled on offense for the entire 2012 campaign, but the special teams unit had plenty of its own issues. Peterson has incredible ability as a return man, and with a floundering offense, he provided plenty of highlights returning punts for distraught Cardinals’ fans, but he also coughed up the football to opposing teams way too many times. It’ll be interesting to see if Coach Arians continues to use Peterson on special teams or if he opts to leave him on defense exclusively.

If he makes the choice to keep him primarily on defense, the team has plenty of other worthy candidates to return kicks and punts. Mathieu may prove to be the most intriguing option, as he excelled on special teams during his time at LSU and would provide similar explosion on returns to Peterson. The return game as a whole will be interesting to follow during training camp in Arizona, as the Cardinals have plenty of athletes to choose from.

Jay Feely remains on the roster, and while he lacks elite leg strength, he’s proven to be a reliable kicker in his time in the NFL. Arians and his staff chose to keep Feely instead of replacing him with former Dolphin Dan Carpenter, who the team signed to compete for the starting job. One major issue Arizona will need to address in camp will be the ineptitude of the punting unit last season, as opponents had great success breaking loose against a poor tackling punt team.

PROGNOSIS: BEST/WORST POTENTIAL OUTCOMES

Best Case Scenario — 10 Wins If ...

  • Carson Palmer rediscovers his Pro Bowl form and puts together a monster campaign throwing to Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, while the defense returns to its early 2012 form and helps keep Arizona in games
  • New Head Coach Bruce Arians ignites a dormant running game behind a hungry Rashard Mendenhall and much improved offensive line to give the team much-needed balance and the team upsets Seattle and San Francisco once a piece

Worst Case Scenario — 4 Wins If ...

  • Palmer's latest stop becomes yet another disaster, as he struggles throwing the football and ranks among league leaders in interceptions, while the running game once again is non-existent and the offensive line shows no improvement
  • Arians proves to be only an offensive coach and the defense regresses, giving the Cardinals no shot at competing with the rest of the division, which will feature three top defenses in Seattle, St. Louis, and San Francisco

Football.com Predictions ... 6-10, 4th NFC West

  • Arizona started last year at 4-0 and looked like a team set on going to the playoffs, but the lack of a quarterback and an abysmal offensive line led to a major free-fall. The Cardinals tried to address both of these issues by trading for Palmer and drafting several offensive linemen, but Palmer hasn't truly been a top-level quarterback since he tore his ACL in Cincinnati many years ago. Expecting the turnover-prone Palmer to excel in a division full of great defenses will probably be asking way too much from him in his first year in the desert.