Super Bowl 51 Contenders: Arizona Cardinals, Part 1. The Offence

The Arizona Cardinals will hope to improve on last season’s NFC Championship Game appearance and attempt to capture the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 2016. The team is filled with talent and characters, as demonstrated by Arizona’s appearance on Amazon’s All or Nothing series, and will hope that the experience of getting so close to the big dance in 2015 is something that will serve them well in 2016. Time is running out of this talented roster as Carson Palmer is in the twilight of his career and despite handing Palmer a 1-year contract extension yesterday, the Cardinals might soon be forced to look for and develop a young signal caller which would certainly delay their Super Bowl ambitions. Entering the 2016 season you will be hard pressed to find a more complete and talented roster than the one that Arizona boasts. Could this be the year that the Vince Lombardy Trophy finally takes a trip to desert? Let us preview the 2016 Arizona Cardinals.

 

The Offence:

The Arizona Cardinals Offence lit up the NFL in 2015. They boasted the highest total yards of Offence and Yards per Offensive play in the League. They also scored the seconded highest amount of points to go along with achieving the second most first downs. This high-powered offence was spearheaded by veteran Quarterback, Carson Palmer who had his finest year as a Pro in 2015. The Cardinals possess a trio of impressive backs alongside arguably the League’s best receiving corps. The Cardinal’s Offence fired the team to a 13-3 record in 2015 and with all the key pieces still in place, 2016 could finally be the Cardinals year.

 

The Quarterback

Carson Palmer is experiencing an Indian summer during the twilight of his career and is currently a top 3 Quarterback in the National Football League. It all clicked for the former number 1 overall pick in 2015 as he had a career year where he posted career highs in yards, touchdowns, Quarterback rating and his lowest interception total when he featured in 12 or more games. Carson Palmer who unconventionally literally redshirted his first year in the League will be 36 heading into the season and 37 by the time the play offs roll round. Palmer is an aging Quarterback who has had his fair share of injuries throughout his career and the Cardinals will hope that as long as the Offensive Line is able to keep him clean throughout most of the season that he can reach the frightening form he found in 2015.

 

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Jared Wickerham/ Getty Iamges

At 6 foot 5, Palmer stands tall in the pocket and is a deadly pocket passer who can pick apart teams with his versatile receiving corps. Despite his age his arm strength has not deteriorated significantly and he is still able to connect with his deep threat options in John Brown and the 2015 rookie J. J. Nelson. Palmer in October 2015 called John Brown ‘the fasted player in League’, however, Brown’s impressive 4.32 40 time in 2014 was nothing compared to the flyer J. J. Nelson ran at the 2015 scouting combine who ran an eye popping 4.28 seconds. Palmer has the arm to blow the top off Defences and his speedy receivers who he regularly attempts to connect with deep are the main reason why his completion percentage is not higher. Palmer has a great touch on the football and his accuracy and ability to throw a tight spiral means that he connects effortlessly with his receivers both through the middle and outside the hashes. 2016 could very well be Palmer’s last chance at playing for a Super Bowl before his play may deteriorate rapidly as evidenced by the decline of Peyton Manning in 2015.

Carson Palmer will in no way hinder the Arizona Cardinals in 2016 and until week 15 last year he was in hot contention for the MVP race. Carson Palmer is a calm pair of shoulders at Quarterback who suits Head Coach Bruce Arian’s vertical stretch offensive philosophy. With the weapons Palmer has around him, he could easily ride off into the sunset with a ring as he attempts to lead the Cardinals to the promised land and bring home a Super Bowl for the state of Arizona.

Rushing attack

The Arizona Cardinals have three dangerous Running Backs who will compete for snaps in 2016. Andre Ellington entered 2015 as the expected starter and despite numerous injuries managed to feature in 10 games and record an astonishing 6.4 yards average per rushing attempt. Yet injury plagued Ellington only contributed 289 rushing yards in 2015 and the season eventually turned into the Johnson show with both veteran Chris Johnson and rookie David Johnson splitting snaps. Chris Johnson who was shot in the shoulder during the 2015 off-season had a bounce back year and showed that he was not passed it as he rushed for a cool 814 yards with 3 Touchdowns.

 

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Joe Camporeale/ USA TODAY Sports

The most encouraging element of the Cardinals rushing attack heading into 2016 is the development of David Johnson who will hope to replicate his rookie success as a sophomore. David Johnson was one of the highlights of the 2015 season as he rushed for 581 yards, 8 touchdowns and pulled in 4 touchdowns and 457 yards in the receiving game. The rookie also proved effective at kick returns as he posted the 5th highest average yards per kick return in the NFL with 27.2 yards. The 2015 3rd round pick is in the driving seat in terms of suiting up as the Cardinals no.1 Running Back come the season opener.

Although Arizona have three different options in the backfield as they could either utilise David Johnson’s cut ability and his mean stiff-arm where he appears to just squeeze through gaps and hold off approaching defenders. David Johnson is also an excellent check down for QB Carson Palmer as he is dangerous in space and after just one cut has the speed to take the ball to the house. Chris Johnson surprised many with his performance during the first part of 2015 and despite not finding the form that earned him the nickname CJ2K during his early career, he was a steady change up at running back and took the majority of the starting snaps when Ellington went down injured in 2015. The speed that broke the NFL Combine record is not there, however, he still possesses the ability to make to identify holes and take the ball upfield. Finally, Andre Ellington is another option who his both an accomplished back with the ball in hand and also a savvy route runner who Palmer can connect with on swings or wheel routes. Ellington is probably the most polished in terms of route running and also the best in pass protection, however, the future is clearly with the raw and incredibly talented David Johnson who should see his statistics double in 2016. While he will most likely form part of the rotation with Arizona’s two other backs, do not be surprised if he has 1,300 combined rushing and receiving yards and a combined total of 12 Touchdowns in 2016.

Receiving threat

The Arizona Cardinals have the most talented Wide Receiver group in the NFL. They have a mixture of youth and old, speed players who can run a go and terrorise Defenses and accomplished route runners who can prove a nightmare in coverage and rack up double digit receptions reeking havoc through the middle and along the side-lines. The group is headlined by future Hall of Famer and nine time Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald who during his previous ten years in the League had done all of his work outside the Line of Scrimmage, transitioned in 2015 to the inside and played the Slot Receiver role. Fitzgerald blossomed in the slot and proved that he is one the best blocking Wide Receiver’s in the League as he helped open holes for the Cardinals backfield to penetrate. Alongside these additional duties he racked up 109 receptions (career high) and 1,215 yards with 9 Touchdowns for his efforts.

 

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X Receiver normally a teams no.1 WR will go against no.1 Corners and have to fight to create separation; Z usually faces man coverage and motions to draw match ups against Linebackers or Safeties; A (slot-receiver) will face all sorts of coverage from different players such as Linebackers, Safeties and Slot Corners.

In the 2015 offseason Head Coach Bruce Arians came to the realisation that he had a player in John Brown who could play the X position (see graph above) and line up as a true no.1 receiver. Brown could also interchange with Malcolm Floyd and thus switch to play the Z receiver where he could use his lightening pace to beat Corners in man on go-routes and also use motion to try and draw coverage from slower Safeties or Linebackers. It was this understanding by Arians that led to him shifting his star man Fitzgerald inside so that he could operate on a stretched field due to the vertical threat of Brown.

The Cardinals have two flyers in John Brown and J. J. Nelson who will hope to see more touches as he enters his sophomore year. Arizona also has former first round pick Michael Floyd who despite being linked with trade rumours every offseason, is also a steady option at either the X or Z receiver. Floyd played well in 2015 and had 100 yard games away at Cleveland, Seattle, St Louis (now LA) and at home against Minnesota and Green Bay. Floyd finished third for the Cardinals on the season with 849 yards as both Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown had 1,000 yard years. The Cardinals are extremely deep at the Wide Receiver position and have a solid pair of hands in Tight End Jermaine Gresham who was taken in the 1st round by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2010. Gresham joined Arizona in 2015 to team up with his former QB Carson Palmer and despite never going over 750 yards on a season, he recent turned down four year deals with the New York Jets and Chicago Bears to stay out in the desert.

It all starts upfront: The Offensive Line

The Arizona Cardinals boast an impressive Offensive Line as General Manager Steve Keim will be desperate to keep Palmer as healthy as possible and upright alongside opening up holes in the running game. Pro Football Focus ranked the Cardinals Offensive line as the 17th best in the League in 2015 as they were 28th in pass-blocking and 4th in run blocking. Entering 2016 PFF have bumped the Cardinals up to 9th and there is no reason why with the talent their Offensive Line features, they may not end up being a top 5 unit in the NFL.

Arizona’s projected starting line will consist of Left Tackle Jared Veldheer; Left Guard Mike Iupati; Centre A. Q. Shipley; Right Guard Evan Mathis; Right Tackle D. J. Humphries. The strength of this line is undoubtedly in its interior with two elite Guards in Mike Iupati and newly signed Evan Mathis. Iupati has been one of the best Guards in the NFL since coming into the league in 2010 and following four years over in San Francisco with the 49ers, he signed a 5-year, $40 million contract with the Cardinals. Iupati has been to the Pro Bowl for the past four consecutive seasons and he brought a toughness and attitude with him that General Manager Steven Keim hoped would reverberate around the rest of the Offensive Line. Evan Mathis is a veteran Guard who just won a Super Bowl ring after spending a season in Denver. Mathis was ranked by Pro Football Focus as their best run-blocking guard last season and their third best guard overall in 2015. Interesting to note that Mathis’ new teammate Iupati was ranked third in run-blocking last season.

 

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AZCardinals.com

Centre A. Q. Shipley is a journeyman who spent his first three season in the League on practice squads. Shipley started 3 games last season for Arizona and appeared in 12 overall and it is hoped that with two of the NFL’s most elite Guards either side of him that he can progress in 2016. Left Tackle Jared Veldheer who similar to Iupati started his career on the West Coast, however, across the bay from Iupati in Oakland. Veldheer who protects Carson Palmer’s blindside is paid like a franchise Left Tackle but appeared to take a step back in 2015 as he struggled against power moves and bull rushes. This did not go unnoticed by Head Coach Bruce Arians who commented “When he first got here he was a mountain. Last year he was a pole.” The Cardinals will hope that Veldheer can add weight in the offseason, however, he still finished in the top 12 of Pro Football Focus’ Left Tackle grades in 2015 and it is clear that he is still a talented starter who alongside Mathis should protect Palmer on the blind side. Right Tackle D. J. Humphries was the 5th Tackle taken in the 2015 Draft as the Cardinals selected him 24th overall. Humphries had a steady rookie campaign and will most likely win out the job for the starting Right Tackle spot but if he fails to impress then the Cardinals could rely on either Rob Crisp or Earl Watford as they have depth at the Tackle position.

The Cardinals Line looks good, however, Evan Mathis is by far the oldest Guard in the NFL at 34 years old and the Cardinals will hope that Shipley at Centre and Humphries at Right Tackle can contribute in 2016 or else the Cardinals Offensive Line could end up playing musical chairs throughout the 2016 season. It is a talented Offense with playmakers all over the field and if Palmer can stay upright and clean then Arizona will be firing on all cylinders in 2016.

Check back tomorrow at midday where we will deal with the Defence headlined by the best nickname in football, the ‘Honey Badger’ and take a look at Special Teams, the Cardinals Schedule and finally the skinny (a condensed summary of the two articles).

To see that article click here…

– Tom Like

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