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For what it’s worth in June, defensive edition

Posted by Darren Urban on June 23, 2016 – 1:35 pm

The players have been gone for a couple of weeks. The coaches are on vacation. Now is the time for them to not think about football, since football will dominate lives when the end of July arrives.

In the meantime, it is the perfect time to speculate and predict.

As I have done for a number of years, here are my picks, in late June, of who will be the starters for the Cardinals when they begin the regular season Sept. 11 against the Patriots on “Sunday Night Football.” They are the best guesses for a team that has yet to take part in training camp, yet to absorb any of the inevitable camp injuries, yet to sign anyone late as a Steve Keim blue light special.

While the Cardinals often are in some sort of sub-package, for this post we are going with the base defense. I’ll post my thoughts on the offense tomorrow (and here they are):

DT – Calais Campbell. Going into the last year of his contract, Campbell’s future with the Cardinals is fuzzy. But the Pro Bowler has played well, and the addition of Chandler Jones figures to make him better, and in a year where the Cards are going to push for a Super Bowl, he’ll be a key piece.

NT – Corey Peters. The Cards like Rodney Gunter, who was solid as a rookie. But Peters was impressing coaches before his Achilles injury last season, and I expect him to make a similar push to get back into the starting lineup by the time the season starts. Other than Campbell, the defensive line starter positions are a) up for grabs and b) part of a rotation, anyway. One caveat: This is assuming Peters is indeed all the way healthy, but coach Bruce Arians said Peters would be ready to go come camp.

DT – Frostee Rucker. Rucker missed offseason work with a foot injury, and he may not be ready right when camp opens. But assuming he doesn’t miss too much time, he figures to find his way into the lineup again. He’s been solid the last couple of seasons, and while there is youth available (Gunter, Nkemdiche, Stinson) Rucker still leads the way.

OLB – Chandler Jones. He was penciled into the lineup the day he arrived in a trade. He’ll be a three-down player.

ILB – Deone Bucannon. Last year at this time I picked Bucannon to be the starting strong safety. It was, after all, where he spent the entire 2015 offseason working. Then, when camp began, Buc was back at dollar linebacker. The Cards don’t even pretend he is anything but anymore.

ILB – Kevin Minter. He got his chance to show he could be a starter last year, and he made it work. He’ll be back in place again as he goes into the last year of his contract.

OLB – Markus Golden. When it comes to outside linebackers, Jones is the star, Alex Okafor is the former starter on the comeback trail after his dicey exit to 2015, and Dwight Freeney is the still-available free agent. Meanwhile, Golden, who was solid as a rookie, will slide into the starting spot opposite Jones. He’ll have the chance to be a nice bookend.

CB – Patrick Peterson. Yes, 2014 was mostly forgettable. Peterson couldn’t have made 2015 more memorable. That was the stud cornerback he could be, and the one the Cards are counting on going forward.

CB – Justin Bethel. There is competition, not from someone unsigned, but from the rookies. If Bethel is going to grab this job, he has to hold off raw rookie Brandon Williams. He should be able to do that.

FS – Tyrann Mathieu. In the end, I think Mathieu finds a way to be ready by “Sunday Night Football” to open the season. If not, Tyvon Branch – who will get a lot of playing time anyway – is around. The Cards need a healthy and productive Mathieu.

SS – Tony Jefferson. Branch will be in the mix too, and D.J. Swearinger will make a push, but in the end I think Jefferson finds his way on to the field first, as the Cards once again mix-and-match often their secondary. (Would I be surprised if Branch starts? Not at all.)

DefenseWorth


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Late signings on Keim radar

Posted by Darren Urban on June 9, 2016 – 11:38 am

The Cardinals are done for the offseason. The football side of the building is on vacation until late July, getting a chance to recharge before the season starts in earnest. So roster moves are unlikely for a while.

But then comes training camp, and a time when General Manager Steve Keim likes to shop in the bargain bin for veterans who can help.

“I’m going to continue to stay active,” Keim said during an appearance on the “Doug and Wolf” show Thursday on Arizona Sports 98.7. “If there is a player out there — and we have monitored a few different players this time of year — we’ll bring them in and we will be aggressive about it. Now, it takes two sides. It takes one side to give an opportunity and the other side has to be on board from a financial perspective. But I really do think we will be able to add a player or two that can help and contribute this year.”

Keim acknowledged it would probably be a position of need in that regard. He didn’t get specific, but it’s not hard to think that right tackle and cornerback could be areas where he’d look. D.J. Humphries has to prove himself at right tackle, and the Cardinals have already had a similar situation when they signed Eric Winston in 2013 to compete with still-yet-to-prove-himself Bobby Massie. Winston won the job that season. At cornerback, the Cards are young and Justin Bethel has to show he can start, so throwing a vet into the mix could push all involved.

But again, the vets “have to have the mental makeup” to fit, Keim said. In part, that vet has to be coming because of the situation, and not because of the paycheck — because the Cardinals aren’t going to be paying big at that time of year.

KeimBlog


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The second field and DBs work

Posted by Darren Urban on May 18, 2016 – 2:35 pm

Ever since Bruce Arians arrived in Arizona, he has made use of the second field during OTAs and minicamp. The concept is simple. With 90 players on the roster, and the veterans needing their time to learn, the third- and fourth-string players and others needing work head over to run the same script that the first two units run on the main field.

After the opening OTA, Arians said that meant 42 reps for each field, and significant work for the inexperienced.

“Most teams’ rookies got five or six reps if they were lucky,” Arians said. “Ours got 42. That’s one of the ways we try to bring young players along.”

Nowhere are those reps more important than at defensive back, with Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Justin Bethel all sidelined with injuries. The Cards are short enough that draft picks Brandon Williams and Harlan Miller, both cornerbacks, are getting their work on the main field thus far. Williams, not surprisingly, has a way to go given his inexperience at the position — Peterson has been working with him closely in practice. But reps against receivers like Larry Fitzgerald or Michael Floyd or Smokey Brown and even guys like J.J. Nelson will quickly show what needs to be learned.

There has been much speculation about whether the Cardinals will sign another cornerback. With the versatility on hand (safeties like Tyvon Branch and Marqui Christian will likely get some work there in practice) and the second field, the Cardinals will get a good sense of just what they have at cornerback on the roster — and whether they need to find someone else later.

millerdbblog


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Peterson, Bethel sidelined for now

Posted by Darren Urban on April 20, 2016 – 11:11 am

Earlier this month, Justin Bethel was at his former high school in South Carolina, giving them a $100,000 check as a way to give back. He did so while on crutches, telling reporters it was a foot injury but that he would be back for training camp. So it wasn’t a surprise when Bethel was one of the few who has yet to be at the voluntary work that began this week. Another guy who is sidelined, according to Kent Somers, is Patrick Peterson, who also had surgery (ankle) and is hopeful to be back for some of the organized team activities later in the offseason. (Peterson later tweeted out the news.)

Neither situation is expected to sideline them for training camp. But it does emphasize the need for cornerbacks, at least in the short term. Right now, if you include Tyrann Mathieu’s slot work, the Cardinals won’t have their top four cornerbacks from last season for at least some of the offseason on-field work: Peterson, Bethel, Mathieu and free agent Jerraud Powers. (Powers, unsigned, still could return, although at this point nothing is expected to happen before the draft.)

The other cornerbacks on the roster: Cariel Brooks (whom the coaches like), Carrington Byndom, Asa Jackson, Shaun Prater, Kevin White and former Australian Rules Football player Joel Wilkinson.

InjurtedCBblog


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Of seven Cards’ Pro Bowlers, only two to play

Posted by Darren Urban on January 26, 2016 – 1:13 pm

The Cardinals had a long season with a crushing ending, and so, with the Pro Bowl coming Sunday only a week after the team’s NFC Championship loss, perhaps it shouldn’t be very surprising that most of the team’s Pro Bowl representatives will not be going to Hawaii.

Only two of the seven Pro Bowlers — defensive tackle Calais Campbell and special teamer Justin Bethel — are going. Safety Tyrann Mathieu (replaced by the Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins) was never going to go, since he was hurt before he was even named to the team. This week, quarterback Carson Palmer (replaced by the Vikings’ Teddy Bridgewater), wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (replaced by the Colts’ T.Y. Hilton), guard Mike Iupati (replaced by the Bills’ Richie Incognito) and cornerback Patrick Peterson (replaced by the Bengals’ Pacman Jones) all bowed out.

Palmer said he wanted to give his banged-up right hand a rest. Iupati cited shoulder issues. I’m not sure what the reasons were for Fitzgerald and Peterson, although in every case, it might’ve just been a need to just get some downtime after a rough end to the season.

Patrick Peterson

NFC Championship aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on January 24, 2016 – 11:18 pm

Larry Fitzgerald fought back tears.

The wide receiver has now played 12 NFL seasons. He doesn’t know exactly how many he has left – he has one year remaining on his contract – and at age 32, the end is much closer than the beginning. He also knows the NFL reality that coming as close as the Cardinals did to the Super Bowl, with the best team he’s ever been on, doesn’t necessarily happen more than once.

That’s why the pain was apparent on his face after Sunday night’s blowout loss in Carolina, a game that, frankly, the Cardinals never really were in. If the Cards had lost in a shootout, or a close game, Fitzgerald said, perhaps he could have dealt with it better, knowing the Cardinals at least made it a battle.

Instead, “we just didn’t have it today,” Fitzgerald said quietly. “And that really stings.”

Things will change. They always do in the offseason. Free agents will leave. New players will be signed and drafted. You hope that comes together. You hope that you can stay relatively injury-free, which the Cards – for the most part – were able to do this season. You hope that as a team you can build again, as the Cardinals have in each Arians’ season. Win totals have gone up and the postseason ladder has been climbed one rung at a time.

You hope. But as Fitz’s emotions explained, nothing is promised.

“The emotions are still so raw for me. So raw,” Fitzgerald said, when asked to assess 2015 as a whole. “In a couple days I might be able to have a little bit better answer for you. It really hurts.”

“Obviously,” Fitzgerald added, “I didn’t want it to end this way.”

— Carson Palmer stood up and answered the painful questions after the game. He took responsibility. He said “I” often and while there was plenty of things weren’t great on the rest of the team – the defense did not have its best game either – Palmer had to play well for the Cardinals to make the Super Bowl. He did not play well. He did not come close.

— While the Cardinals and Keim will continue to look for their quarterback of the future, Palmer is going to be the quarterback in 2016. He should be. He did not play well in the postseason but he was a deserving MVP candidate this year.

— Running back David Johnson was excellent, but it’s too bad the Cards got so far behind. He has definitely shown his future as the lead running back.

— The secondary as a whole was not good. Some of that was because of a lack of pressure on Cam Newton, but there were other mistakes. Justin Bethel was not the only player to get caught, but even Bruce Arians noted Bethel by name as someone who had a tough night. Arians added Bethel will get better. The Cardinals need him to.

— Among the free-agents-to-be are cornerback Jerraud Powers and safety Rashad Johnson. Both emphasized how much they want to return. But we will see how that plays out. I expect the Cardinals to try and get a Tyrann Mathieu extension done at some point, and I also wouldn’t be surprised to see a cornerback taken in the draft.

— The Cardinals will pick 29th in the NFL draft. There will be only 31 first-round selections after the Patriots surrendered theirs during Deflategate.

— There are a lot of other things to talk about heading into the offseason. But with the Cardinals done, there is time to get to all of that.

FitzAfterNFCblog


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Packers aftermath, heading to NFC title game

Posted by Darren Urban on January 17, 2016 – 1:09 am

Where to begin.

Let’s start here: I can’t recall a crazier ending for the Cardinals. Ever. That playoff win against the Packers back in the 2009 season was back-and-forth too, wild swings of emotion, but that was simply offensive football played at an incredibly high level. I’m not sure exactly what Saturday night was.

There was one guy playing at a high level. It was Larry Fitzgerald, and that’s the best place to start. I think Fitz had already made a strong Hall of Fame case. But what he did Saturday, basically jump-starting a moribund Cardinals offense by himself, and then making that play in overtime to race 75 yards and set up the (well, his) game-winning touchdown. I know there isn’t much more to be said about Fitz that hasn’t already been said, but Saturday night? That’s how legends are made. They are made with epic playoff performances like Fitz had in the 2008 Super Bowl run, and they are made with 176 yards on eight catches in a dramatic overtime win against the Packers to put your team in the NFC Championship.

— Next, Carson Palmer. It wasn’t Palmer’s best game. During the game there were plenty in the Twitterverse that blamed Palmer’s issues with his Bengals background. There is no question Palmer was off at times and that end zone interception was, in a word, terrible. You can’t do that in that situation.

But Palmer bounced back as Bruce Arians always says he does. He was under more pressure than the Cardinals can afford to let him be under – the Packers had the better pass rush this time around. And the way Palmer miraculously spun out of what should have been a sack and somehow found Fitz on the 75-yard play was as critical and clutch as Fitzgerald’s effort on the other end.

— Palmer gets his first playoff win. It wasn’t perfect, but who cares? Not Palmer, that’s for sure.

— The first person in the end zone after Fitz’s TD to congratulate Fitz was former teammate-turned-scout Adrian Wilson. A great moment.

— Speaking of Wilson, he stood next to Justin Bethel tucked in Bethel’s locker after the game, quietly talking to the cornerback for a long time. I would guess it was words of encouragement after some tough moments for Bethel, not the least of which being Jeff Janis getting behind him to convert that fourth-and-20 play at the end of the game.

— The game was so nuts that the touchdown pass to Michael Floyd that was intended for Fitz, deflected high into the air and toward the back of the end zone, over the head of another Packer and Jaron Brown, is a footnote.

— Floyd, about that play: “I think God was on our side on that one.”

— Here’s a new one: Patrick Peterson was sitting on the floor in the locker room having athletic trainer Michael Blankenship remove tape off his ankle, when a reporter wandered over to ask him a question. Soon, Peterson was surrounded by media – so he sat on the floor, outstretched legs in front of him, propped up by his arms, doing his entire media session.

— Linebacker Kevin Minter, on watching Fitz tonight: “That’s that guy I watched growing up.”

— The Cardinals blitzed Aaron Rodgers on the Hail Mary. They did it from his right so he couldn’t roll into his power. And he still escaped and flung a great pass so his guy would have a chance. Sometimes, you have to tip your cap to the other guy. I’m guessing the Packers – after the hurt wears off – will do that with Fitz. And you have to do it to Rodgers.

— Sure, the Cardinals could have run the ball on second down, right before the two-minute warning and their final field goal. They could’ve burned up another 35 or 40 seconds. But Arians went for the kill. “I play to win,” Arians said. No risk it, no biscuit. I’m sure there are those who have issues with the call, but folks, if you are following/rooting for this team, this is what you signed up for.

— I could write more, but it’s time to go home. Got to get some sleep so that I’m up in time for Seattle-Carolina. It’s on to the NFC Championship.

FoitzBlog


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Honors begin for the Cardinals

Posted by Darren Urban on January 6, 2016 – 10:34 am

The Cardinals are hoping they still have weeks left in their season, but with the regular season completed, the postseason awards are going to start — and with the year the Cards have, they will be mentioned often (like when the Pro Bowl rosters were announced.)

Wednesday, Pro Football Focus unveiled it’s all-pro team. Not only were the Cardinals well represented, but Carson Palmer was named the quarterback, a significant nod in a year where Cam Newton and Tom Brady were excellent. A look at those picked by PFF, and what was said about the Cards:

Palmer: “What a year for Palmer, who not only came back from what many presumed to be a career-defining injury, but did so by playing better than he ever has. What made Palmer so impressive was his ability to destroy defenses deep, with an impressive 34 deep completions (10 of which went for touchdowns).”

Larry Fitzgerald, slot receiver: “Reinvented as a slot threat, Fitzgerald rolled back the years to show how productive—and dangerous—of a receiver he still is.”

Patrick Peterson, cornerback (beating out Carolina’s Josh Norman, it should be noted): “It isn’t easy tracking the top receivers in this league. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be, but clearly Peterson didn’t get that memo, because he’s had no difficulty doing so. His consistent, shutdown play is something we don’t often witness.”

Tyrann Mathieu, slot cornerback: “It’s a real shame that Mathieu had his season cut short, but he still put enough on tape that his inclusion as our slot corner was never really in doubt. He does it all from the spot, and his ability to contribute is every phase of the game is something to behold.”

Justin Bethel was named second team special teams, and the PFF guys even said it “feels like heresy” to not name Bethel first team, but that Miami’s Michael Thomas was that good.

PFFBlog


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Mathieu done for season — but it happens

Posted by Darren Urban on December 21, 2015 – 3:17 pm

It is unquestionably a harsh reality the Cardinals and Tyrann Mathieu were officially handed Monday, with the news Mathieu had torn his ACL and was done for the year. Mathieu has had a fantastic season. They will miss him on the field. But what struck me is how personal this is, for Bruce Arians and players. This cuts them, because Mathieu is such a great person. This is ground that has been covered many times, but it makes sense why people want to root for this guy. He has a charisma that few have. He is genuine. Add in the fact he can play football, and it resonates. I’m not afraid to say he’s one of my favorite guys to cover in my 16 years around this team.

This is why the news is extra painful.

“Luckily we have the next couple of days off to let this emotionally sink in,” safety Rashad Johnson said. “Not so much not having our guy to play in the playoffs, but our hearts go out to him because of everything he’s been through and how hard he has worked to get back to this point and having the season he’s having.”

As for on the field, the Cardinals have to find a way to make due defensively without Mathieu. You can’t replace the playmaking ability. That’s innate. You do have — assuming no more serious injuries — depth, however. Johnson should be back from his ankle injury. Jerraud Powers plays more slot. Justin Bethel gets on the field. And new safety D.J. Swearinger plays more with Tony Jefferson.

Also part of the equation: This happens. Take a look around the top teams. Almost all have lost at least one significant player, if not for the season, for an extended period of time.

— Seahawks: TE Jimmy Graham, RB Marshawn Lynch, RB Thomas Rawls

— Panthers: WR Kelvin Benjamin

— Steelers: RB Le’Veon Bell

— Packers: WR Jordy Nelson

— Bengals: QB Andy Dalton

— Patriots: WR Julian Edelman, every decent running back they had

— Broncos: LT Ryan Clady, QB Peyton Manning (yes, I understand you can quibble with the Peyton pick.)

The point is it’s the living example of that well-worn quote coaches and some players have been saying for years: “The other team isn’t going to feel sorry for us.” The other teams have their own personnel losses. It’s the business.

Tyrann Mathieu, Nelson Agholor


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Palmer leads Cards’ final Pro Bowl list

Posted by Darren Urban on December 17, 2015 – 11:45 am

Quarterback Carson Palmer was the top vote-getter for the Cardinals now that the public part of Pro Bowl voting has ended. Palmer got the fourth most votes of any player — 514,967, to be specific — and was also fourth overall in the NFL, since QBs all finished ahead of him (Brady, Newton, Dalton).

Free safety Tyrann Mathieu dropped a spot to third at his position, but Frostee Rucker made a late surge to get into the top 10. In all, 11 Cardinals were ranked in the top 10 in votes at their respective positions. Players and coaches vote later this week league-wide to come up with the final Pro Bowl tallies/roster, and they get announced Dec. 22.

The full Cardinals’ list:

— QB Carson Palmer fourth

— RB Chris Johnson eighth

— WR Larry Fitzgerald fourth (with an impressive 410,095 votes)

— G Mike Iupati fifth

— DT Calais Campbell fifth, Frostee Rucker seventh

— CB Patrick Peterson fifth

— SS Rashad Johnson seventh, Deone Bucannon 10th

— FS Tyrann Mathieu third

— Special teams Justin Bethel fourth

ProBowlBLOG

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