PHOENIX - When you get inside University of Phoenix Stadium this week to watch the Cardinals prepare for the 2014 season, don’t just sit and watch Larry Fitzgerald. Spend some time focused on the positions and players that will make a difference in actual wins and losses this fall.
As Coach Arians put it, “Keep your eye on the inside linebackers, the right side of the offensive line and the safeties and corners.” He was joking with the media after the team’s first run test and on the day players reported to Glendale, but his message was clear. Those are the positions that matter right now.
Gone are Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby, the team’s two inside linebackers who were the heart and soul of the league’s best run defense in 2013. In for 2014, 13 year veteran Larry Foote (#50) and second year man Kevin Minter (#51). While Foote is probably on the downhill side of his career and will certainly not be as fast as Washington or Dansby, Minter is a young 23-year-old out of LSU who played just one defensive down for the Cards last season. Young, but inexperienced. Coach Arians believes in both players and says openly that this year’s defense has a chance to actually be better than last year’s.
The offensive line continues to be a concern. Jonathan Cooper (#61) is back at guard after missing the entire season last year to injury, Whether or not he can come back and play at a high level is yet to be seen. The team did sign free agent tackle Jared Veldheer (#68) but Veldheer is also coming off a serious injury last season. Lyle Sendlein (#63) is back at center and has proven to be a better than average center. His experience and knowledge of the blocking scheme will come in handy as the team works to put together a solid front line that can hopefully open some holes for 2nd year running back Andre Ellington (#38) and protect 12th year quarterback Carson Palmer (#3).
On the right side of the line, guard Paul Fanaika (#74) returns but the team will be working hard this August to find a starting right tackle. Will third year pro Bobby Massey (#70) emerge or will third year man Bradley Sowell (#79) step up?
In the defensive secondary, we know that safety Tyrann Mathieu (#32) is on the physically unable to perform list. (PUP) That means, he can come back at any time prior to the first regular season game, but if he’s still on the PUP list by the first week, he’ll miss the first six games of the regular season.
The team did sign 9 year veteran free agent Antonio Cromartie (#31) in the off-season and he should be starting opposite Patrick Peterson (#21) when the Chargers come to town to open the regular season on September 8. At safety, the Cardinals will be looking to first round draft pick Deone Bucannon (#36) to prove to us why they took him with their first round pick. Rashad Johnson (#26) will be the expected starter at the other safety spot, but Tony Jefferson (#22) will see plenty of action.
Just for fun, keep your eye on rookie receiver John Brown (#12). Brown was the team’s third round draft pick, but coming out of a smaller school (Pittsburg State in Kansas) it’ll be fun to see if he lives up to all the hype. He’s considered one of the fastest players on the roster, if not the fastest.
And of course, there’s plenty of attention on the tight end position, a spot that Coach Arians wasn’t all that happy with last season. He says this year’s crop of tight ends looks really good in the meeting room! Now if they can play as good as they look.
And finally, Carson Palmer: The 12 year veteran still has plenty to prove and if he can come through in the clutch, the offense has a very good chance of performing at a high level and putting up lots of points!
Enjoy training camp, but remember, don’t just cheer blindly, keep an eye on some of the key position battles and focus on what happens in the one-on-one drills. It’s the one-on-one match-ups that show us who’s going to be able to handle the best guys across the line of scrimmage this season. Oh and yes, it doesn’t matter how strong or how tough you are, if you can’t learn and remember the playbook, you’ll either end up getting cut, or watching from the sidelines.