Training camp preview: Arizona Cardinals head into season with highest of expectations

Posted at 11:16 AM, Jul 21, 2016

The Arizona Cardinals come to training camp with expectations as high as they can get in the NFL.

Anything short of a Super Bowl win will be a disappointment, and the bitterness of the blowout loss in Carolina in last season's NFC championship game lingers.

Arizona led the league in yards per game last season and was second in points. Barring injury, the Cardinals don't expect those numbers to change much. Every player on offense who scored a touchdown last season is back.

Coach Bruce Arians enters his fourth season with the Cardinals. His first team won 10 games, his second 11 and his third 13 -- 14 if the playoffs are included.

Everyone showed up for organized team workouts this summer, and Arians was so happy with minicamp he ended it a day early.

"I'm extremely pleased with where this football team is right now," he said.

Not everything is settled going into camp.

Here are some things to watch when Cardinals workouts begin:

THE O-LINE: The only real competition on offense is at center, where A.Q. Shipley is trying to hold off rookie Evan Boehm to replace the departed Lyle Sendlein. The right side of the offensive line is new. Veteran Evan Mathis was signed to play right guard and is being counted on to help new right tackle D.J. Humphries. Humphries didn't suit up for a game last season, but the coaches say they're confident he's ready for starting role.

"Up front we've got to really get comfortable with each other," Palmer said. "That needs to continue to develop and grow, but having the explosiveness guys, the skill position guys back is huge."

All the skill players return.

DEFENSIVE NEWCOMERS: On defense, eyes will be on lineman Robert Nkemdiche, the first-round draft pick who slid to Arizona at No. 29, largely due to off-field concerns.

The 6-foot-3, 294-pound rookie was impressive in offseason workouts but, as Arians likes to say, that's "soccer," not football.

The Cardinals' biggest move in the offseason addressed the team's main need, improving the pass rush. Arizona acquired outside linebacker Chandler Jones from New England, and training camp will give him a chance to further learn the aggressive defensive system.

SECONDARY ISSUES: A crucial question is how soon All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu will return. The do-everything player underwent his second knee surgery in three years and has not set a timetable for his return. Mathieu tore his right ACL  last Dec. 6 and his absence was sorely felt, not only for his play but for the spirited "edge" he brings that rubs off on the rest of the defense.

And in the background is the issue of Mathieu's contract. The Cardinals would like to sign him to a long-term deal, but perhaps not until they're satisfied about his health.

The preseason will determine whether Tyvon Branch can unseat Justin Bethel at cornerback opposite three-time All-Pro Patrick Peterson. Bethel missed the offseason workouts recovering from a surgically repaired left foot. The Cardinals added experienced depth to the position a week before camp opened by signing cornerback Mike Jenkins.

Peterson also must work his way back after offseason ankle surgery. He was practicing on a limited basis in minicamp.

"Once training camp comes around I'll be 100 percent," he promised then, "I'll be ready to roll."

CONTRACTS LOOMING: Several players are in the final year of their contracts, including Jones, and general manager Steve Keim has said the Cardinals have no intention in letting him walk after just one season with the team. But defensive end Calais Campbell, wide receiver Michael Floyd, and the face of the franchise, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, also are in the final year of their deals.

Fitzgerald, who last season had 109 catches to break the franchise record he set a decade earlier, will enter his 13th training camp.

PALMER'S PSYCHE:  Another matter is Palmer's psyche after that four-interception NFC championship game. It followed the best season of his 13-year career, when he set team records in yards passing, touchdown passes and quarterback rating. He said he's moved on from that awful last game, but is well aware of the "can't win the big one" label.

"You can't win a big game until you win it," he said.

At age 36, he knows he won't have many more chances to try.