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Nkemdiche optimism returns

Posted by Darren Urban on April 20, 2018 – 9:51 am

In the brief time Steve Wilks has been head coach of the Cardinals, he does not come across as someone prone to hyperbole. So when he praises 2016 first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdiche after Nkemdiche’s first two underwhelming NFL seasons, it’s easy to take note.

“Robert is a very intriguing guy,” Wilks said of the defensive tackle. “I constantly talk to Robert all week about tempo … (because) I really have to slow Robert down. We don’t have on pads. And that’s a great thing. That’s a real good thing. You want to be able to slow guys down, not tell them to pick it up. Robert is going to be tremendous for us this year. He’s locked in, he’s focused, he came back in shape, he’s ready to go.”

Nkemdiche needs to do more on the field. He has acknowledged that. But all last season, his work ethic and practice habits earned him praise from coaches. Now he’s getting more from a new staff. He just needs to translate it to the football field. At this point, his draft status doesn’t mean much — one-time undrafted DT Olsen Pierre, who had a very nice breakout season last year, was more effective than Nkemdiche — but he still has a ton of tools.

He’s also now playing for a coach who is known for getting different personalities to play well (right, Josh Norman?) and for honing in on developing players. A big step forward by Nkemdiche would be an awesome way for Wilks to immediately put that player-development stamp on his new team.

“He said, ‘Coach, I’m committed to excellence this year,’ ” Wilks said. “So far, he’s been a plus on the football field. I’m excited about him.”

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Bradford gets started, limited as expected

Posted by Darren Urban on April 17, 2018 – 5:16 pm

Steve Wilks said last week that there was “no rush” to get quarterback Sam Bradford on the field full-time, and that he would be limited in the first minicamp. And Tuesday, as the Cardinals got on the field for the first time, Bradford was indeed limited, and Wilks said afterward that wasn’t going to change.

“We will continue to do the same with Sam,” Wilks said, noting that Bradford did do “some things” with the first unit.

“He’s limited right now, so when we get a chance to work together, from what I’ve seen, which is on tape or standing across the field watching when he was playing for the Rams, he’s a pinpoint passer,” wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “He’s extremely accurate, he can make all the throws than anybody would ever ask.

“Moreso me, I just need to learn (about) him, gain his trust by showing him every day I’m capable of making the plays he needs me to make.”

Wilks wasn’t going to get more expansive about Bradford, but it wasn’t limited to the quarterback’s status either. When asked about rehabbing players like tackle D.J. Humphries and defensive end Markus Golden, Wilks declined to talk much about what point they are at with their injuries.

“I don’t really try to put timetables on things,” Wilks said. “I don’t try to create promises. We just want to have results.”


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The plan to work outside in camp — maybe

Posted by Darren Urban on April 10, 2018 – 3:16 pm

Steve Wilks won’t be holding any joint practices in training camp in his first season — “I wanted to concentrate on us,” he said Tuesday — but what will be interesting is the amount of practices held inside University of Phoenix Stadium as opposed to not. In the heat of August, getting in the air-conditioning building holds heavy sway, but as the new Cardinals’ coach said, “we will try and get out as much as possible.”

“I know the weather is an issue out here,” Wilks said. “I’ve talked to the trainers about that on several occasions. (Head athletic trainer) Tom (Reed) has looked at me (like), ‘OK.’ We’ll definitely see how it goes. I think it’s all about building that callus up. But I’m going to be smart.”

Wilks isn’t unaware. He told a story about when he was an assistant with the then-San Diego Chargers, and when the team got off the plane, it was 118 degrees. The Chargers were staying in the Biltmore area, and Wilks, it being a night game, was looking to walk around and maybe get a bite to eat earlier on game day.

“I’m just going to get out and walk around,” he said. “I got out to the tunnel and I turned right around and said ‘room service.’ It was hot.”

So Wilks knows what it can be like, obviously.

“I’m listening to the stories,” Wilks added. “I’m saying we’re going to be outside, but we’ll see.”


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For Cardinals, offseason work has arrived

Posted by Darren Urban on April 2, 2018 – 1:26 pm

Thanks to a new coaching staff, the Cardinals are allowed to have an extra couple weeks of offseason work. That means Tuesday, players will return for the beginning of the voluntary offseason program (azcardinals.com will have coverage). This is only Phase One of the three-phase offseason, which includes Phase Two (on-field work without helmets) and Phase Three (OTAs). There is also the mandatory minicamp in mid-June and a voluntary minicamp in just a couple of weeks — April 17-19 — which will be the first time the players will be doing football-related things on the field.

It’ll also be the first time the new coaching staff and Steve Wilks will be able to interact with players on more than just a cursory hello, because meetings can start. The heavy lifting of the offseason is still to come, but the relationship between staff and roster begins this week.


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Cards could still re-sign own FA or two

Posted by Darren Urban on March 28, 2018 – 7:36 am

The majority of the Cardinals’ own unrestricted free agents have found a home going into the 2018 offseason, but there are still some that have not yet signed anywhere. The door isn’t necessarily closed that one — or a couple — could come back.

“It’s still a possibility,” coach Steve Wilks said at the NFL league meetings in Orlando. “I know some of those guys have gone on and gotten with (other) teams, but in that second wave, third wave, we can circle back and find out from a financial standpoint if it is feasible (for someone to return.)”

Feasible usually means how much the player is willing to take monetarily. He also has to still fit in the depth chart, and we are creeping closer to the time when teams will simply put free agency on hold until after the draft, to see what holes are filled in that regard.

Of the remaining free agents the Cards still have, some could make sense to return: guards Alex Boone and Earl Watford, since the line could still use more depth; safety Tyvon Branch after the release of Tyrann Mathieu (although the significant knee injury Branch suffered last season will be a factor, as will his age); running back Kerwynn Williams; defensive lineman Frostee Rucker; and, given a position shortage, tight end Troy Niklas. (The full Cardinals’ free-agent tracker is here.)

The Cardinals will eventually get to 90 on the offseason roster, but they are at 63 now. (Update: Make that 64.) Usually, between draft picks and undrafted rookies, the Cards add around 25 players. That would leave a couple spots still — and, of course, if they found a better option, they could also eventually release someone already in place.


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Wilks: Despite Suh, NFCW moves, “focus on us”

Posted by Darren Urban on March 27, 2018 – 9:48 am

There has been a ton of roster movement for all four teams in the NFC West this offseason, and it was hard not to notice the most recent by the odds-on division favorite L.A. Rams. They signed Ndamukong Suh to add to Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers as an incredibly formidable defensive line. It does not bode well for the rest of the division, including — obviously — the Cardinals.

“I commend the Rams for what they are doing,” Cardinals coach Steve Wilks said Tuesday at the NFL owners’ meetings. “You know how they are on offense already with (Todd) Gurley and (jared) Goff, and they are trying to shore up that defense. It’s going to be a very competitive year in the west with some difficult games in the division. But the biggest thing we will do, we are always going to keep the focus on us. That’s the most important thing.”

Wilks is still in the middle of getting together his initial roster. The draft hasn’t even occurred. To be clear, at some point, the focus will be on the Rams — or Seahawks, or 49ers — when those teams come up (twice) on the schedule. The Cardinals were already trying to upgrade the offensive line, so it’s not like a new Rams’ defensive line is changing that thought process. Wilks still hasn’t gotten a chance to fully outline his philosophy and culture with the players (that comes next week when the players return for the start of the offseason program), so there is still a lot to do before getting to opponents, division or not.


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Being “aggressive” in the search for QB

Posted by Darren Urban on March 1, 2018 – 6:49 am

It’s the buzzword that the Cardinals — and many teams — use this time of year: “Aggressive.”

It came up with both GM Steve Keim and coach Steve Wilks here at the Scouting combine, when both were asked what exactly it meant when they said they were going to be aggressive in their pursuit of a quarterback.

“When you don’t have one, there is no other way,” Keim said, and that’s hard to argue.

Still, both men described being aggressive pretty much the same way they have been talking about the quarterback search in general.

“We will have plans in place for free agency, but again, a trade option potentially, and the draft, it’s all three because we don’t have any on the roster currently,” Keim said. “Whether we are going to keep two or three, we’re going to have to have someone that’s experienced,  and you’d like to be able to take a young guy and develop him.”

Wilks was a little more specific.

“What I mean by aggressive right here is when free agency starts, we’re going to try to get the best one, not only have a plan A but a plan B and a Plan C,” he said. “You also have to look at trades. And then, there’s the draft. We’re sitting at 15. Do we feel there is a guy we have to move up for? All those things come into play when I talk about being aggressive, not sitting back.”


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Wilks’ QB input: “A whole lot”

Posted by Darren Urban on February 22, 2018 – 3:30 pm

Steve Wilks, who makes it clear of his conviction in whatever he might be talking about, took a few questions today prior to an open interview session with his offensive assistants. One of the questions was a very basic one, especially for a head coach with a defensive background: How much input will you have on the decision for the next quarterback?

“Have a lot of input in it,” Wilks said. “A whole lot.”

“We’re going to work together to make sure we bring the right guy in here,” Wilks added. “Coaches are watching tape and evaluating as well. (GM) Steve Keim and myself are constantly talking and communicate about our gameplan of what we want to do. Anyone coming on this roster I will have a definite input and major factor in bringing them in.”

That Wilks would have a large say isn’t a surprise, especially after Keim and Michael Bidwill talked during the coaching search that having such QB input was one of the selling points to a candidate. There is little question, however, how strongly Wilks feels about the process and his place in it.


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Waiting to see the offensive philosophy

Posted by Darren Urban on February 21, 2018 – 9:50 am

Within a month or two of Bruce Arians taking over as coach in 2013, he made known some very specific thoughts he had on the offense: He was going to take six shots or so downfield every game, he didn’t like having a fullback, tight end was more of a blocker in his offense. As the Cardinals transition into the Steve Wilks era, those are the questions that will be interesting to see play out.

To begin with, Wilks, with his defensive background, could very well lean on offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s thoughts on whatever subject may come up. McCoy was actually asked specifically about a fullback during his press conference; he said if it fit what they were going to do with the offense, he’d have one. Ultimately, it feels like there are a lot of different ways this can go.

The reason, of course, is that the Cardinals need to find a quarterback, and that QB will help dictate the direction the Cardinals will be headed. The coaches also need to determine if, in the case of using a fullback at times, if that fits with what David Johnson can do well. Will a tight end be more involved in the passing game (or does the role Larry Fitzgerald has been playing serve as that tight end-esque spot — assuming Fitz is still used in the same way as the last few years?) These answers also could impact what kind of offensive linemen the Cardinals want to have in place.

One of the selling points the Cardinals used when looking for a new coaching staff was the ability to help figure out the next quarterback. When it comes to the offense, the QB is only the first domino.


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Larry Fitzgerald’s return, and what it means

Posted by Darren Urban on February 15, 2018 – 12:12 pm

Fitz’s future remains on the field.

We know that now, after the wide receiver let his new head coach know Wednesday night and then Steve Wilks told the world Thursday morning. The speculation had been going on for weeks, and even in the times Fitz talked about it, he sounded like someone who wasn’t ready to retire but there was always that little thought that he still might. That’s what happens when you don’t say you are playing for sure.

But that’s a question to park until next November/December (and yes, it’s going to come up again then, unless, of course, Fitz makes some definitive statement before that time.) What this news means now has a few levels to it:

— The Cardinals keep their best wide receiver. The wide receiver corps has a ton of questions around it. John Brown, Jaron Brown and Brittan Golden are scheduled to become free agents in a month. J.J. Nelson had times when he shined last season, but times when the Cards wanted more consistency. Chad Williams, 2017’s third-round pick, remains a question mark. Plus there will be a new offense. The Cards need to address the position this offseason. That doesn’t change even with Fitz’s return, but his presence makes any transition that much easier.

— He made the decision before knowing who the quarterback will be, and that’s a sign of belief in the franchise, if nothing else. It’s not like the Cardinals can make any QB moves at this point. Fitz has caught passes from 17 quarterbacks in his 14 years after Blaine Gabbert joined the group last season, so he knows what it’s like to be flexible. “I’ve had some years in Arizona where things weren’t always easy, but they’ve always done a good job of addressing that position, and they’re trying to,” he said last month. Faith reigns.

— He entrusted the news to Wilks, which feels like a sign of respect. Look, Fitz doesn’t love this storyline, he doesn’t like talking about his status one way or the other (his retirement news, whenever it comes, is going to be absent a live Fitz as well, I’m guessing, since he’s all but promised as much). I’m still not sure he’s met Wilks face-to-face, even. But Fitz flew off to New Zealand and told his new coach to tell everyone, and that bodes well for the relationship.


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