The end of the offseason comes with it lots of speculation and analysis. That’s par for the NFL course these days, when even the parts that don’t mean a ton get parsed and dissected. The on-field work of OTAs and minicamp is the ultimate in that regard. Once, when the CBA was different and the league was different, minicamp was about pads and training camp got a brief yet important head start (ask Ron Wolfley.) Now minicamp, other than extra time on the field, is no different from OTAs in terms of (non-)contact and what it means. Shorts are shorts, and football isn’t played in shorts.
So when I get to this point in the offseason, when I put out my best guess at the starting 11 for the Cardinals when the regular season opens Sept. 13 before I take some vacation, it comes with the caveat: So much is still to be learned in training camp. At this point last year, Jonathan Cooper was a virtual lock to start at left guard, for instance. We know how that turned out.
That said, here are my thoughts on the defense. Offense will be posted tomorrow. Something to chew on while the temperature sizzles outside and the players get down time until the very-late July report day. One point to note — the Cardinals do open against the Saints, so the actual starting lineup may actually be the nickel sub-package or something like that. For this exercise, we’re going base defense:
(UPDATE: Here is the offense.)
DE — Frostee Rucker. The Cardinals are going to rotate their defensive linemen a lot (except for maybe Calais Campbell) but the veteran Rucker should be in the game to start. He was dropped into that role in training camp last year after Darnell Dockett got hurt and had a solid season.
NT — Corey Peters. Peters isn’t built the same as departed nose tackle Dan Williams, but the Cardinals are counting on him to have a similar impact. One of the reasons Williams was allowed to leave was because he wasn’t going to play the amount of snaps needed to give him the money he could make on the open market. Peters is a little more versatile. It’ll be interesting to see where someone like undrafted rookie Xavier Williams could eventually fit into this equation.
DE — Calais Campbell. He’s the Pro Bowler of the front seven and the guy who Bruce Arians wants to lead this defense. Interesting that a couple pof times Arians has talked about Campbell finding more consistency in his high play. If Campbell gets there, the Cards’ defense will be in good shape.
OLB — LaMarr Woodley. This is a big wild card going into training camp. Lorenzo Alexander has been with the first unit alongside Alex Okafor, but I think Woodley — or someone — finds a way to supplant Alexander by the time training camp ends. Maybe it would be rookie Markus Golden who pairs with Okafor. Maybe, since it’s the Saints in the first game, DE-turned-OLB Kareem Martin gets a shot. But right now, I’ll guess Woodley.
ILB — Sean Weatherspoon. Weatherspoon has to stay healthy, but if he is, he joins Campbell and Patrick Peterson as the three absolute locks to start.
ILB — Kevin Minter. He won’t play if the Saints run three and four receivers out there constantly, but Minter will be that run stopper inside in a season that really becomes ultra-important. He sat as a rookie because of Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby. His play last season was undercut by a training camp pectoral injury he played through. He’s healthy now, and needs to show why he was a second-round pick.
OLB — Alex Okafor. Okafor has gotten plenty of praise from Arians, who thinks Okafor would have gotten double-digit sacks (he had eight) had he just been healthy for all 16 games. Okafor probably isn’t the long-term dynamic pass rusher the Cards still need, but he has shown he can pressure the quarterback, and that makes him very valuable.
CB — Patrick Peterson. For whatever the reasons might have been, Peterson did not play as well in 2014 as the Cardinals needed or how anyone expected. Time to right that wrong. Peterson looked fit and active in the offseason work, which was a good sign.
CB — Jerraud Powers. There is still a chance Justin Bethel has a great camp and passes up Powers for a starting job, but in the end I expect Powers to be the guy. Arians has said good things about him constantly, and the Cards like his smarts on the field.
SS — Deone Bucannon. For a good chunk of offseason work, it was Bucannon and Rashad Johnson on the field with the first team base defense, with Tyrann Mathieu coming off the bench. But I think Mathieu will be a guy the Cards want to have on the field at all times, and right now, I think they’d like to find a way for Bucannon to have a role at safety. Now, the Cards will want to use Johnson — the on-field coach of the secondary, if not the defense — but I think it’ll be more like the role Johnson had in 2013 once Mathieu took his starting spot.
FS — Tyrann Mathieu. Again, the Cards have depth at safety. There will be times when Bucannon plays some linebacker in sub-packages and the Cards use Mathieu, Johnson and Tony Jefferson on the field at the same time. Arians has stressed the Cards want the best 11 on the field for each particular play. But a healthy, playmaking Mathieu is going to get a lot of snaps.
Tags: Alex Okafor, Calais Campbell, Corey Peters, Deone Bucannon, Frostee Rucker, Jerraud Powers, Kevin Minter, LaMarr Woodley, Patrick Peterson, Rashad Johnson, Sean Weatherspoon, training camp, Tyrann Mathieu
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