NFC WEST CARDINALS 2014 STRENGTHS: • Good running backs, great receivers, super-human defensive backs Cardinals Offense The 34-year-old Carson Palmer has become as dependable a quarterback as they come, pretty much putting up 60-percent, 270-yard, 80-rating passing performances annually for either the Raiders’ or Cards’ lackluster offenses. However, in 2014, Palmer has reason for playoff optimism. With Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Ellington, Palmer has three of the most complete all-around skilled players who may help the team start generating closer to 400 yards. The 30-year-old Fitzgerald is the face of the franchise, but is also the heart and soul of the team, as its hardest worker, most consistent performer and the man who is as likely to be voted to the Pro Bowl team for his blocking as his pass-catching skills. The 24-year-old Floyd is the Cards’ third-year pro who became the team’s 1,000-yard receiver last season, finally giving Fitz—and Palmer—some relief. Don’t be surprised if Fitz & Floyd become the top receiving tandem in 2014—replacing the Bears Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery—with many believing the Cards rushing game—featuring Ellington, Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer—is now strong enough to give signal-caller Palmer options. Left tackle Jared Veldheer leads a line that should be improved, but still has a lot to prove in this soon-to-be-stellar season. The main thing that stopped Arizona in 2013 was too many turnovers (31, which ranked 26th in the NFL). With young stars coming into their own and old stars hanging on, in hopes of one more Super Bowl, don’t count out this house of Cards just yet. Offensive Player To Watch In the second half of the 2013 season, Ellington went from passcatching third-down back to featured full-time running back when the 25-year-old memorably replaced injured Rashard Mendenhall by gaining 154 yards on 15 carries versus Atlanta. From that point on, Ellington got his fair share of handoffs, averaging 4.3 yards 2014 WEAKNESSES: • Special teams, iffy offensive line and new players on D ARIZONA per rush on 11.3 carries per game. ProFootballFocus.com said only Donald Brown had more yards after contact per carry (100 minimum) than Ellington, who also rated fifth in PFF’s Elusive Ratings, just below Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. With a better offensive line in front of Ellington in 2014, and a better corps of substitute running backs behind him—not to mention a good passing game—look for the 5-9, 199-pound Ellington to make a big name for himself all season long. Cardinals Defense The advanced analytics crowd knew something was special about these 2013 Cardinals when their team defense numbers kept scoring off the charts every game, finally finishing the regular season with the NFL’s best rushing defense (holding foes -24.9 percent on the average expected play), the fifth-best passing defense (-11.2 percent) and second-best overall defense (-16.4 percent), according to FootballOutsiders.com. Such numerical dominance might make one skeptical of the metrics, but the old-school scouts would all point out they have never seen three freaks of nature like the defensive leaders of the team, giant lineman Calais Campbell, speedster corner Patrick Peterson and unstoppable safety Tyrann Mathieu. Shoot, even 36-year-old stalwart linebacker John Abraham stood out on the middle row, playing like his younger brethren, piling up 11.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles at the grand age of 36. Can they continue their dominating ways? These four, yes. The rest of the defense is where the real question lies. Abraham’s linebacking corps is the most susceptible to a drop-off, with no one thinking injured ex-Steeler Larry Foote and second-year Kevin Minter can hold down Cardinal starter positions this season, which is similar to the doubts expressed in 2013 when fellow linebacker and former Raider Matt Shaughnessy was also thrust into a starter position. Well, regardless of perception, all three need to step up as starters, especially since standout linebacker Daryl Washington isn’t coming back for another year, after suffering his third drug-related suspension by the NFL.
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