Strategy And Personnel

The Sports Xchange

July 24, 2018 at 1:10 am.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Sam Bradford. Backups – Mike Glennon, Josh Rosen, Charles Kanoff.

From starter to third string, the Cardinals’ main trio of quarterbacks would appear to be as good as any other threesome in the league. It has name recognition and talent. The only real issue, of course, is Bradford’s health. He’s only played a full 16-game schedule twice in his career and has a very troublesome left knee that could derail his season – and most likely his career – with one hit or dangerous misstep. Rosen seems poised to leapfrog Glennon into the backup role during training camp and the preseason and Arizona will have to make sure he’s ready if he’s thrust into starting duties. Judging from offseason workouts, that shouldn’t be a problem. Many industry insiders believe he should be the starter entering Week 1 regardless.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter – David Johnson. Backups – Chase Edmunds, Elijhaa Penny, D.J. Foster, T.J. Logan, Derrick Coleman, Sherman Badie,

There are two truths about Johnson: He’s one of the most multi-talented offensive weapons in the entire league as both a rusher and a pass receiver and he’s also suffered significant injuries in each of the last two games he’s played for the Cardinals. Make no mistake, if he stays healthy, Johnson should be a joy to watch in 2018 for all the right reasons. But he’s also asking for a hefty pay raise and skipped the team’s last minicamp to make his point. Assuming he gets a deal that appeases him, the Cardinals are set at this position. Johnson alone is enough to do that. But behind him, there is some solid depth and some excellent speed and playmakers, especially in youngsters such as Logan and Edmunds.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters – Jermaine Gresham, Ricky Seals-Jones. Backups – Gabe Holmes, Bryce Williams, Alec Bloom, Andrew Vollert, Chris Bazile.

If there’s one weak link more than anywhere else on this team, it’s here, where Gresham is recovering from an Achilles injury and Seals-Jones is the only other real viable option as a starter. The depth at tight end is atrocious and the front office must upgrade this unit before or during training camp to give the rest of the offense a legitimate chance to succeed. Maybe one of the youngsters will step up and surprise, but it’s doubtful. Tight end has never been a position of strength with the Cardinals, but it has to get better than it is.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Larry Fitzgerald, Brice Butler. Backups – J.J. Nelson, Christian Kirk, Chad Williams, Greg Little, Carlton Agudosi, Rashad Ross, Corey Willis, C.J. Duncan, Jalen Tolliver, Trent Sherfield.

Unlike the tight ends, there is plenty of depth to like among Arizona’s receiving corps. The problem is, there isn’t really a trusted, signature-type player the team can truly count upon beyond Fitzgerald, who turns 35 in the fall and could be playing his last season. Butler and Little could provide some veteran stability, but neither has shined for any sort of length of time at any point in their careers. Kirk could be the ultimate target, based on his skills and potential. Nelson has the chops, but needs to prove he’s more than just a deep threat who can catch half the passes thrown his way. Williams is the real wild-card here, but he’ll have to up his game and his commitment significantly to get a legitimate shot.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT D.J. Humphries, LG Mike Iupati, C A.Q. Shipley, RG Justin Pugh, RT Andre Smith. Backups – John Wetzel, Mason Cole, Evan Boehm, Daniel Munyer, Korey Cunningham, Will Holden, Josh Allen, Vinston Painter, Will House, Greg Pyke.

The unit returns three starters in Humphries, Iupati and Shipley and it’s the belief of both head coach Steve Wilks and GM Steve Keim that the free-agent additions of Pugh and Smith improve the front five significantly. Chemistry and communication will be the key moving forward to see if that becomes a reality, but in studying the starters throughout offseason workouts, it appeared this group was already well on its way to establishing a solid rapport with each other. There’s a lot to like about some of the immediate depth behind them, too. Rookie draft picks Cole and Cunningham are seen as definite NFL players who in short order should be able to contribute, if needed. Boehm, meanwhile, offers nice position flexibility at all three interior spots.

DEFENISVE LINEMEN: Starters – LDE Markus Golden, DT Robert Nkemdiche, DT Corey Peters, RDE Chandler Jones. Backups – Djeri Moubarek, Olsen Pierre, Rodney Gunter, Benson Mayowa, Owen Obasuyi, Pasoni Tasini, Siupeli Anau, Vontarrius Dora, Alec James.

There are a couple of “ifs” here, but they aren’t exactly huge ones. And yet, it could be the difference between this being the strongest unit of the entire team or perhaps the weakest. It hinges mostly on Jones returning to All-Pro form, which he should as he’s accumulated the most sacks (28) and tackles for loss (43) than anybody in the league during the past two seasons. In addition to setting a single-season franchise record and NFL-leading 17 sacks last season, Jones also led the league with 28 tackles for loss and 38 quarterback hits in 2017. The “ifs” part of the equation is twofold: Has Golden recovered enough following ACL surgery to be the same force he was prior to getting hurt and can he make a seamless transition from outside linebacker to defensive end? And, has Nkemdiche truly earned the respect and trust of the new coaching staff to make them stick with him as a first-time full-time starter following two very underwhelming and unproductive seasons in the NFL? Peters is a pro’s pro and will handle his business, but the depth is only so-so, although Pierre and Gunter are serviceable and hungry backups.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – SLB Haason Reddick, MLB Josh Bynes, WLB Deone Bucannon. Backups – Bryson Albright, Scooby Wright, Edmond Robinson, Praise Martin-Oguike, Airius Moore, Jeremy Cash, Matt Olpinger, Dennis Gardeck.

There isn’t any real name recognition here. Bucannon is making strides in his “money-backer” role and if he can remain healthy, there’s a chance he could really improve his reputation and turn it into a Pro Bowl nod. But with this unit, you’re really only as good as the sum of your parts and the Cardinals’ linebacker group overall won’t scare very many NFL teams in 2018. Not the way it looks at the moment, that is. Reddick is young and still learning after his rookie season and will be tasked with the most important job of anyone as the strong-side ‘backer. Bynes has talent, but he’s never been “the” guy in the middle during any of his previous stops. Behind them, there is little to no viable depth whatsoever, making Arizona’s run defense feel incredibly penetrable. Keim might have to work some of his preseason magic and come up with another veteran or two to ensure this group doesn’t get embarrassed.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Patrick Peterson, SS Budda Baker, FS Antoine Bethea, RCB Jamar Taylor. Backups – Bene’ Benwikere, Travell Dixon, Rudy Ford, Brandon Williams, Chris Campbell, A.J. Howard, Lou Young III, Jonathan Moxey, Tavierre Thomas, Deatrick Nichols.

This might be one of the most interesting parts of the Cardinals to watch in 2018. It all starts, of course, with Peterson, the perennial Pro Bowl selection. He’s going to be allowed to play off the ball much more this season in an effort to get more out of his athleticism and anticipation. The hope is that it will lead to more interceptions for the veteran and allow his overall playmaking ability to shine even brighter. Baker is an up-and-comer who turned heads everywhere during his rookie season a year ago. Playing with the experienced and savvy Bethea, he will be able to take more chances without getting burned. The question heading into the season is who will start opposite Peterson. Taylor gets the nod entering camp, and the expectations are that he should be able to hold off challenges from his primary competition, Benwikere and Williams. It’s the depth at safety that could be a concern. There just isn’t much there.

SPECIALISTS: K Phil Dawson, P Andy Lee, LS Aaron Brewer, KOR T.J. Logan, PR Christian Kirk.

The Cardinals will have one of the oldest kicking tandems in the league this year in the 43-year-old Dawson and Lee, who turns 36 in August. It doesn’t mean they aren’t fully capable of still producing at a high level, however. Last year, Dawson tied a career-high with eight missed field goals, but he also tied a career-high by making 32 of them. He connected on four field goals from 50 yards or farther. Lee, meanwhile, is a three-time Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro who ranks eighth all-time in punts downed inside the 20-yard line (372). He had 29 of them a year ago, which was tied for the seventh-most in the league. It’s the Cardinals’ return game that could be injected with a real jolt in 2018. Logan and Kirk have real speed and deception as returners and both are young and only figure to get better.