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Spoon’s absence, and Buc as LB

Posted by Darren Urban on August 25, 2015 – 3:06 pm

Sean Weatherspoon’s extended absence has been, in Bruce Arians’ words, “discouraging.” Certainly Weatherspoon’s spot in this defense feels like a question mark (although if he gets back on the field in the next week, I’m not sure we’ll even think about it anymore.) With Weatherspoon still out, not much has been figured out in terms of the inside linebacker position.

Or maybe it has.

Look, there has never been any doubt of the depth the Cardinals have at safety, or the fact both Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator James Bettcher have said multiple times they will put the best 11 on the field. Or the fact Arians earlier in camp called safety Deone Bucannon the lone “inside linebacker” he can see on the field all three downs (with Weatherspoon on the shelf, of course.)

Bucannon would like to play safety. But he is smart enough — and team-oriented enough — that he’ll play wherever. He reiterated that again Monday. As long as Rashad Johnson (who, it can be noted is in the last year of his contract) and Tony Jefferson and Tyrann Mathieu are around, and as long as Bucannon probably is better suited in the box rather than running around to cover a lot of guys, linebacker is his spot. To be out there a lot could be a concern given his weight (he is listed at 211) but I know there are many out there who suggested Bucannon may be better suited at linebacker.

Things change from year to year. If Johnson isn’t here in 2016, if the Cards get Weatherspoon to click and stay beyond this season, if an athletic inside linebacker is drafted, maybe this all changes. But even if Weatherspoon gets back to where the Cardinals want him to be, I’m guessing Bucannon will be next to him, in front of the secondary, much of the time.

BucPicUSE


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For what it’s worth in June, defensive edition

Posted by Darren Urban on June 18, 2015 – 3:11 pm

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.

DefensiveHuddleBloguse

 


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Arians cuts minicamp short

Posted by Darren Urban on June 10, 2015 – 11:39 am

The offseason is just about over.

After the Cardinals finished their minicamp practice this morning, Bruce Arians declared it to be the last day of minicamp. The work had been good enough over the last month of OTAs and minicamp that he canceled Thursday’s final day (The Cardinals still had meetings and a walkthrough today.) Arians was confident the Cards accomplished what needed to be done, not the least of which was getting Carson Palmer back on the field. No reason to push it, or risk any more injuries.

Some quick notes now that it’s over:

— Tight end Troy Niklas is having a minor surgical procedure on his previously injured left ankle to remove what he described as the “tightrope” in his ankle, which had kept the area tight but also restricted his movement. He said he’ll move much better in training camp afterward. Niklas was sitting out Wednesday with his right ankle sore after rolling it Tuesday.

— Undrafted rookie inside linebacker Alani Fua got a couple of reps in seven-on-seven nickel work, which could be interesting down the line. Fua, at 6-foot-5 with long arms, could be a pain in a rear for opposing passing lanes.

— One defensive look had four safeties on the field: Rashad Johnson, Deone Bucannon, Tyrann Mathieu, Tony Jefferson. There was a reason Arians dismissed the idea of the depth chart regarding safety.

— Arians talked again about the Cardinals’ improved team speed and strength. “What the hell is it called now, Sports Science?” Arians said. “I know we’re bigger and stronger and faster.”

— Arians praised the final work of practice for rookie tackle D.J. Humphries, and also said Jonathan Cooper has looked very good all offseason.

— The last practice was spirited. The offense and defense wanted to “win” plays, which is why running back Andre Ellington couldn’t believe he dropped a wide-open TD pass (pictured below.)

AndreBummedBLOG

 


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Palmer on field as Phase 2 begins

Posted by Darren Urban on May 4, 2015 – 11:33 am

The caveats: In Phase 2 of the offseason program, there is no defense and there are no helmets. The work is only one hour. Offensive and defensive players are working on separate fields. But in terms of good signs, Carson Palmer taking snaps as the first-unit quarterback — after tearing his ACL in November — has to be considered as one. Palmer was out there and, aside from the knee brace, didn’t look any different than last offseason as he threw passes. (We’ll have more in a homepage story later today.) This doesn’t mean Palmer is ready to play in a game, or even that he’ll be able to do a lot during OTAs or minicamp. We’ll see on all that. But it definitely underscores the optimism Palmer has for training camp.

A couple of other notes from this still-voluntary phase:

— The rookies are not here yet. They arrive Thursday afternoon with rookie minicamp starting Friday.

— The first-unit offensive line looks as expected right now: From left tackle to right tackle, it was Jared Veldheer, Mike Iupati, Ted Larsen, Jonathan Cooper, Bobby Massie.

— Not only is Kareem Martin getting work at outside linebacker, but it looks like Matt Shaughnessy working as a 3-4 defensive end after playing linebacker in 3-4 alignments previously.

— First-unit safeties on this first day were Deone Bucannon and Rashad Johnson.

PalmerPahseBloguse


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Adrian Wilson’s goodbye and his Pat Tillman help

Posted by Darren Urban on April 20, 2015 – 5:21 pm

This is when you feel the legacy, on the day in which Adrian Wilson officially retires and when he talks about the guys who helped him when he got into the league, Pat Tillman comes up. It’s fitting this time of year, when the anniversary of Tillman’s death draws near. It’s easy to forget how important Tillman was to Wilson that one season they played together, in 2001.

“I didn’t know the first thing about the playbook,” Wilson said of his rookie season. “(Defensive coordinator) Larry Marmie’s playbook was so complicated, I couldn’t understand it. Pat sat me down for hours upon hours just going through the playbook just to go to practice the next day. It was that complicated for me. I owe big dividend to Pat.”

To think, Wilson was there to essentially replace Tillman.

(Wilson thanked other “old-time” Cardinals Corey Chavous, Kwamie Lassiter, Rob Fredrickson and Ron McKinnon for their help when he was starting out too.)

— When Wilson was released back in 2013, I covered a lot of the instant emotions and thoughts I had of his career in this post. But his retirement Monday brought some closure and, perhaps sooner rather than later, maybe bring Wilson back into the building on a consistent basis. He shrugged off his future right now, saying he wanted to “take my time on that.” He’s got four young kids. That’s his focus now, although there is little question GM Steve Keim likes having him in the mix. Team president Michael Bidwill noted that before the press conference, Wilson had his mock draft around, drawing a grin from Wilson.

“He’s made some improvements from his first mock that he showed me,” Keim said. “I think I sent him back to the film room.”

— Not only was Wilson’s family there, but his two buddies from North Carolina from when he was 10 years old, Adrian Mack and Anthony Johnson, were there Monday and it took me back to 2010 when Wilson invited me back to High Point to cover his high school retiring his jersey number and I was able to meet Mack and Johnson and do a big story on who Wilson really was as a person. Looking back on that article, through the prism of today, this quote stands out, about Wilson desperately wanting to leave a legacy.

“Nobody in my family has one and I’ll be the first,” Wilson said. “That’s something I think is more important to me than anything – leaving that right mark. I want to lay a foundation down where it doesn’t matter what generation you come from, you’ve got to respect what I did.”

— Bidwill will have Wilson go in the Ring of Honor, but that date is TBD. The schedule comes out tomorrow, and then the team must figure out what home games have which events, like Breast Cancer Awareness or Salute to Service, for example.

— Wilson admits he thinks about the Hall of Fame. I’ll have a separate post on that tomorrow, but it’s been tough sledding for safeties in Canton.

— There was a good group of former teammates on hand for Wilson today: Fitz, Patrick Peterson, Justin Bethel, Rashad Johnson, Calais Campbell, Bertrand Berry, Quentin Harris, Damien Anderson, Rolando Cantu. Peterson even took the mic during the press conference to deliver a statement in front of everyone. Wilson was an important part of this franchise. He still should be.

AfterDubBlog


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With workouts, volunteering to be paid

Posted by Darren Urban on April 2, 2015 – 4:31 pm

When the strength and conditioning program begins for the Cardinals (and around most of the league) April 20, the tendency is to wonder, “Who isn’t there?” Then becomes the rash of “Remember, it’s only voluntary” answers.

(The teams with new head coaches can begin sooner.)

As the years have gone on and teams have hoped that their players would show up to such voluntary work, many contracts have been drawn up with workout bonuses attached. For a pretty good chunk of change, the players just have to come to a high percentage of the voluntary workout dates. The Cardinals are no different.

A list of the players on the active roster that have workout bonuses. (NT Alameda Ta’amu has a workout-like bonus, but that money is tied to making weight, not just showing up to work):

P Dave Zastudil $270,000
DE Calais Campbell $250,000
QB Drew Stanton $250,000
LB Sean Weatherspoon $250,000
S Rashad Johnson $150,000
DT Corey Peters $150,000
LB Matt Shaughnessy $125,000
CB Patrick Peterson $100,000
LB Lorenzo Alexander $100,000
S Tyrann Mathieu $50,000
C/G A.Q. Shipley $25,000
C/G Ted Larsen $25,000

ShaughnWOuse


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Bucannon as safety, not (as much) linebacker

Posted by Darren Urban on March 30, 2015 – 9:31 am

Deone Bucannon was drafted as a safety, and then basically played linebacker all season. It was necessary because the Cardinals lost Daryl Washington and never quite found a linebacker replacement — so then-defensive coordinator Todd Bowles dropped the rookie into the mix in the nickel package as the new Washington.

Bucannon did pretty well in the role. But he sees himself as a safety and so do the Cardinals, and Bucannon will be a safety in 2015 — unless he isn’t.

“He’s going to play safety,” coach Bruce Arians said. “We know he can play dime linebacker. He’ll play safety until we find out we don’t have the other guy.”

What does that mean, exactly? Well, newcomer Sean Weatherspoon, if healthy, is a three-down linebacker. And there is still a chance the Cardinals will bring back Washington. If Washington does not return — or even if he does — the Cardinals could still draft another (speedy) inside linebacker. I don’t know if there is anyone out there left on the free agent market the Cardinals could sign for that role but it wouldn’t be unheard of for the position later in the offseason (Karlos Dansby, Larry Foote). Another factor: The Cards are flush at safety, with Tyrann Mathieu, Tony Jefferson and Rashad Johnson along with Bucannon.

“We know we have the flexibility because we have so many good, quality safeties,” Arians said. “He’ll still play (some linebacker) because we will still have that package. We like to have that much speed on the field.”

BucAsSafetyuse


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Bethel up, as the Cro flies

Posted by Darren Urban on March 12, 2015 – 12:52 pm

The inevitable happened Thursday, with Antonio Cromartie getting the long-term (four years) and hefty ($32 million, at least at its max, reportedly) contract he sought and right where he wanted to be — back with the Jets, back with Todd Bowles and Darrelle Revis, and back where he has his home. The Cardinals knew for a long time Cromartie was a likely one-and-done, like Karlos Dansby before him.

There is a reason Bruce Arians often talks about Justin Bethel’s potential as a cornerback, and now here we are, with — at least as of today — Bethel seems the choice to step in across from Patrick Peterson. That’s assuming Jerraud Powers remains the slot cover man, where he is most effective. Even Bethel reacted to the Cromartie departure news in a similar vein:

Bruce Arians has never been shy about praising Bethel’s potential as a cornerback. Last offseason, he said he thought Bethel could end up being better than Peterson and multiple times during the season said Bethel might be starting if he were on another team and not stuck on a depth chart populated with Peterson, Cromartie and Powers.

“Oh, he’s moved up the depth chart in my mind,” Arians said in mid-December. “He’s a starter. He has potential to be a starter in the league. I’m very excited about his future.”

As usual, there are moving pieces to all of this. Powers — who is going into the last year of his contract — could be in the mix to return to the starting spot he had with Peterson before Cromartie arrived. That possibility could increase if the Cardinals decide to use Tyrann Mathieu in the slot, like he was used in his rookie season before tearing his ACL.

(Quote to note on Powers from Arians: “I don’t think anybody played any better than Jerraud Powers last year. He was probably our best guy.”)

The Cardinals probably need to add a cornerback at some point, either by free agency or the draft, for depth. But the secondary still has a lot of good remaining, with four safeties that can play (Mathieu with Rashad Johnson, Tony Jefferson and Deone Bucannon) and the ability the mix-and-match.

Still, this seems to be Bethel’s chance to emerge beyond being a Pro Bowl special teamer.

Kenny Britt, Justin Bethel


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Free agency looms big — next year

Posted by Darren Urban on January 6, 2015 – 4:21 pm

I have posted my annual roster breakdown, where you can see (right here) where everyone of note on the current roster stands in terms of how long their contract runs — at least right now, before guys are released or extended or otherwise restructured. If you want to see the details of this year’s free-agent concerns, here’s my story on that. But one of the things you notice when you peruse the list of players is just how many guys have their contracts expire after the 2015 season.

By my count, it’s 25 guys, and while that will most certainly change by this time next year — a rookie class will push some of those guys off the roster, for instance — it’s something to watch as General Manager Steve Keim maneuvers through this offseason. Many of these players are up so soon because they were found off the street or as undrafted rookies and had shorter-term contracts. But, at least for now, here are some of the names that are scheduled to be up after 2015:

— DT Darnell Dockett
— QB Drew Stanton
— WR Michael Floyd (who does have a 2016 team option)
— C Lyle Sendlein
— T Bobby Massie
— DE Frostee Rucker
— LB Matt Shaughnessy
— CB Justin Bethel
— CB Jerraud Powers
— S Rashad Johnson
— S Tony Jefferson

Again, I don’t expect all of them to remain on that schedule. The Cardinals will make an attempt to extend some of them. Others could be released as the normal roster overhaul takes place. But this is the way a team clears cap space and doesn’t get into cap problems, like Keim has worked to try and do. It means there are few real long-term deals. And more work every offseason.

behtelblog


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Friday before the Panthers and the Wild Card

Posted by Darren Urban on January 2, 2015 – 11:58 am

Remember the last time the Cardinals went to Carolina for a playoff game? It turned out pretty well for the Cards. They flipped Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme into a turnover-machine – six in all – as the Cards crushed the 12-4 Panthers on their Super Bowl run.

The Cardinals (and the Panthers, for that matter) are way different than that team. Only three Cardinals who were there in the 2008 season will be on the field Saturday: wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (who destroyed the Panthers that night), center Lyle Sendlein and defensive end Calais Campbell, who was just a rookie.

That game didn’t start well but we knew from playing them earlier in the season we could beat them,” Campbell said this week, choosing “resilience” as the one word to describe that game.

Campbell’s current team is looking for that resilience. The Cardinals are the underdog for their playoff game – as usual, coach Bruce Arians said – but even with a two-game losing streak, they carry with them a confidence they will be fine. Everyone has the same record at this point is the message coming from the team’s locker room. It’s a fresh start.

The Cards were the underdog once upon a time too. “I remember at halftime, Kurt Warner saying, ‘We’ve got them down, we’ve just got to finish them,’ ” Campbell said of that night in January, 2009. “He didn’t talk big too often, so when he said ‘Finish them,’ we all got focused.”

We’ll see where the Cardinals’ focus is Saturday.

— Campbell was named second-team all-pro Friday, underscoring a big season in which Campbell also was named to his first Pro Bowl. Campbell got 11 votes at defensive end, trailing only Houston’s J.J. Watt (unanimous 50 votes) and Buffalo’s Mario Williams (24). (Campbell also got a vote at defensive tackle for some reason.)

Four Cardinals got a single AP vote at their respective positions: tackle Jared Veldheer, linebacker Larry Foote, kicker Chandler Catanzaro and safety Rashad Johnson.

— There isn’t much more to be analyzed about quarterback Ryan Lindley. He can’t turn the ball over, and while he shouldn’t have to throw for 260 yards in a half for the Cardinals to win, he will have to make some plays. In a lot of ways, this game feels like it will come down to the quarterbacks – The Cards need Lindley to hold up, and they need to hold down Cam Newton.

— There was a players-only meeting Monday after the 49ers game. “I think a lot of good things we said in there,” Arians said during his appearance on the “Bickley and Marotta” show on Arizona Sports 98.7, and it was probably some important things. When you are having issues communicating – which especially has happened on defense a few times – and there is a need to refocus on the tackling, such a meeting can help. If nothing else, it was a chance for guys to clear the air and make sure the most important message was heard: It’s not easy to get to the playoffs or win in them. Don’t squander the opportunity with self-inflicted mistakes.

— Arians said he doesn’t want the defense to feel it has to do extra just because Lindley is at quarterback. Interestingly, that’s the opposite of what former Buccaneers coach-turned-ESPN-analyst Jon Gruden said he did once upon a time.

“The year we won the Super Bowl (in the 2002 season), we had to beat Chicago in Week 16 with our backup quarterback, and we had never won a game in below‑freezing temperature,” Gruden said. “So what I did is I went down to Warren Sapp’s locker and Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber and said we’ve got to play some defense tonight.

“That’s what Bruce Arians has to do. You’ve got to go get Calais Campbell, you’ve go get your star players on defense, hopefully Larry Foote is ready to go, get Patrick Peterson and Cromartie and say, ‘Let’s pick it up, let’s play the game of the year on the road.’ Go down to Ted Ginn and say ‘Return a punt just like you did against the Giants.’ Let’s get after them in the kicking game, as well. Let’s run the ball.  Let’s not be afraid to punt the football, and let’s take our shots here and there when we strategically get the one‑on‑one isolations that we want. Don’t turn it over, play great defense, and find a way to win.”

— The chance for rain on game day has shrunk to 50 percent. It’s also warmer in Charlotte than it is in Phoenix.

— The Panthers did finish on a four-game win streak, but they played four sub-.500 teams – the Saints, Bucs, Browns and Falcons. Something to consider.

— Getting Larry Foote back at inside linebacker is more important than most realize, I think.

— The Cards, if they win, won’t know where they are playing until Sunday. A Cowboys win Sunday and the Cardinals would travel to Seattle. A Lions win, and the Cards would travel to Green Bay.

Of course, they’ve got to win first.

prepanthersuse


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