Feb 25, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Louisiana State Tigers linebacker Kevin Minter rests on the bench after finishing his on the field workout during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Arizona Cardinals Contend in the NFC West?

Dec. 16, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA: Arizona Cardinals running back Beanie Wells (26) is congratulated by Larry Fitzgerald (11) after running for a touchdown against the Detroit Lions in the second quarter at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals came out of the gates strong in 2012. It’s safe to say they didn’t end the season the same way.

Arizona went 5-11 in 2012 and finished the season by losing 11 of 12 games. The Cardinals beat the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks in their first two games, but they weren’t able to win at the end of the season. Arizona’s quarterback play brought the team down, and its performance was abysmal at the end of the year.

However, the main problem was quarterback, and Arizona made an effort to solve that problem. The Cardinals brought in Carson Palmer, who is turnover-prone but can make plays. Palmer averaged 8.39 yards per passing attempt in 2012, and while he averaged a mere 7.11 yards per attempt in 2012 he still managed 4,018 passing yards in 14 games.

Palmer took the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs in 2005 and 2009, and he almost took the Oakland Raiders to the playoffs in 2011. Palmer can take the Cardinals to the playoffs in 2013, especially with Larry Fitzgerald catching passes. Fitzgerald was in an extremely hard situation in 2012 with John Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Kevin Kolb struggling, but he still caught 71 passes for 798 yards.

In 2013, Fitzgerald will have much more to work with. Fitzgerald dominated when he was with a solid quarterback in Kurt Warner, as he caught 30 passes for 546 yards and seven touchdowns in four 2008 playoff games. If Palmer can give Fitzgerald opportunities to make plays, chances are Fitzgerald, who can go up and make a great play to catch a pass, will catch it.

Palmer has taken chances and paid for it in the past, but Fitzgerald will often bail him out and allow Palmer to take more chances. If Fitzgerald and Palmer develop good chemistry right away and Fitzgerald stays healthy, it could lead to a dominant quarterback-receiver duo. Palmer is still going to throw interceptions, but he’ll appreciate having a seven-time Pro Bowler catching passes.

Arizona’s new quarterback will also appreciate other offensive additions the Cardinals made during the draft. Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor, two running backs who had their way with college defense, were picked in the fifth and sixth round, and Jonathan Cooper, a stellar guard from North Carolina, was added in the first round.

Ellington averaged 5.1 yards per carry (YPC) in 2012, while Taylor ran for 1,530 yards and managed to handle a heavy workload (Taylor carried the ball a remarkable 322 times in 2012). The two can combine to form a dominant running back tandem, complete with speed, durability and playmaking ability.

Neither has top-tier speed, but Ellington ran a stellar 4.52 40-yard dash. Ellington can make plays in space and can break tackles, which is also one of Taylor’s strengths. The two are similar, but they will both help the Cardinals in different ways. Taylor can get the ball in the end zone in goal-line situations, while Ellington, who didn’t have tons of carries in college, can break loose for big runs.

Oh, and both are extremely hard to bring down.

The two will be helped out by Cooper, Arizona’s first-round pick. Cooper, who weighs 311 pounds and is 6’2″, didn’t surrender a single sack in 2012. In addition, Cooper graded at least 90 percent for blocking consistency in 10 games, which was the most in the FBS. Cooper has faced and overcome adversity in the past, and the athletic guard should thrive in Arizona.

If the offense ends up doing well, the team will do well. Arizona’s defense ranked 12th in the NFL last season, and it was very consistent outside of one game against the Seattle Seahawks. Arizona’s defense stifled Tom Brady, allowed more than 31 points just once and didn’t allow more than 24 points until Week 9.

Daryl Washington was suspended four games and will probably miss more time due to the recent events going on in his life. Luckily for the Cardinals, they were able to draft Kevin Minter, another middle linebacker, as a potential replacement. Minter, who was a tackling machine at LSU (he registered 130 tackles in 13 games) could definitely do the trick.

Arizona has Patrick Peterson, one of the NFL’s most athletic corners and punt returners, anchoring the defense, and it has Tyrann Mathieu as well. Mathieu has had drug issues, but he is an impactful player who made it to New York City as a Heisman candidate in 2011. Mathieu intercepted passes, registered tackles and made big special teams plays, which was what made him so good.

Mathieu will play safety, and his athleticism will allow him to be a very good safety. Mathieu ran an unofficial 4.43 40-yard dash, and he showed his athleticism on the field all the team. Peterson and Mathieu are both special teams and defensive playmakers, and while the two play different positions they can team up to form a dominant secondary tandem.

Overall, the Cardinals are a very good team. The NFC West is a very difficult division, and based on 2012 records the Cardinals have the seventh-toughest schedule in the league. San Francisco and Seattle gave Arizona trouble in 2012, and it’s going to be hard for the Cardinals to get past the Seahawks and Cardinals.

Arizona isn’t going into rebuilding mode. Palmer is 0-2 in the playoffs, but he can take the team there. As long as Arizona’s offensive line doesn’t allow 58 sacks like it did in 2012 and as long as the defense can step up around Washington’s absence, the team will be fine. It’s unlikely that the Cardinals sneak into the playoffs, but a season with seven or eight wins isn’t unrealistic.

But if things go better than expected, the Cardinals could shock everyone by contending in the NFC West and making a strong playoff push.

 

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Tags: Arizona Cardinals Carson Palmer Daryl Washington Jonathan Cooper Larry Fitzgerald NFL

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