COMMENTARY | The Arizona Cardinals open training camp at University of Phoenix Stadium July 26 -- all dates are laid out by Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com. It is the first time camp will be held anywhere but Flagstaff since 2005, when Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University took the place of Northern Arizona University for one summer because of a suspected norovirus going around NAU's campus.
With so much change this offseason, there are more questions to answer than usual, but we will focus on five main points of discussion.
Head coach Bruce Arians will deal with these questions in his own way, but it is important to note that despite so many uncertainties involving the team, the team itself is ready to go. His offensive line, for example, should be improved -- the left side, especially -- over last year's unit that allowed an NFL-high 58 sacks.
Players appear excited to get the 2013 season underway. That was not the case the last few seasons. Certain leaders would say they were ready to get going and that it should be a good season, but you know they didn't really mean it. With the quarterback situation the way it was, they had to be nervous.
Not this year.
1. Can Carson Palmer dig the offense from out of the rubble?
The 2012 season was a culmination of filth offensively; everything went wrong right from the get-go. From losing left tackle Levi Brown in the preseason to losing running back Ryan Williams during Week 5, things spiraled downward in an unstoppable free-fall until the entire team hit rock bottom Week 14 at the division-rival Seattle Seahawks.
That 58-0 mortification resonated within the organization. It was the most lopsided loss in franchise history, and it fell short of the most lopsided shutout loss in NFL history by one point.
One thing is sure: an Arians-led team will never fail to show up like that team did.
How good can the offense be in 2013? Can quarterback Carson Palmer lead them from the worst unit in the league to relevance? Although it is arguable, if you place Palmer behind center Lyle Sendlein in 2012, the team would have been drastically better.
Would they have made the playoffs with Palmer? That's not worthy of getting into, as it all is purely subjective and all based on opinion.
The fact is, however, that Palmer makes the 2013 Cardinals better, and the 2013 Cardinals make him better. He is the best quarterback in town since Kurt Warner retired, and his receiving corps one of the best -- if not the best -- with which he has ever worked.
2. Who will take hold of the No. 2 receiver spot?
It has been assumed for months that second-year receiver Michael Floyd will start opposite Larry Fitzgerald this season. He is poised to be among the breakout players of the entire 2013 NFL season.
But is that a given?
What if Andre Roberts, who has been the de facto No. 2 receiver for two seasons, improves so much that Arians is forced to play him more than Floyd? Seeing pictures of Roberts over the offseason, he appears to have finally bulked up. Will his added strength help him become the deep threat he was drafted to be?
His problem since arriving in the NFL has been breaking tackles. So much of what makes a receiver successful is what he does after making the catch, and averaging 3.7 yards after catch per reception (per ProFootballFocus) is very mediocre. In fact, that total ranked him No. 64 out of 105 receivers who partook in at least 25 percent of offensive plays a season ago.
Granted, Floyd was no better, ranking No. 66 at just 3.6 YAC/R. But Floyd was a rookie; Roberts was in year three and has never been a YAC stud.
3. Will the offensive line improve?
Toward the end of last season, the offensive line began to jell. It allowed a quarterback pressure (the combination of sacks, hits and hurries) every 2.50 drop-backs from Week 1 through the bye (Week 10). From Week 11 through the end of the season, that more than doubled, to one pressure every 5.33 drop-backs, including leading the league for Week 13 at the New York Jets, with a pressure allowed once every 11.00 drop-backs.
If the line is as good as it was down the stretch last year, the offense should be okay. If it is better -- and it very well could be better -- that only improves the offense's chances of success.
The addition of first-round pick Jonathan Cooper to left guard and Brown's return to left tackle should allow Palmer time to read defenses without the worry of being blindsided by defenders.
One spot to watch is right guard, where veteran left guard Daryn Colledge now plays. He's new to the right side, and it could take him time to adapt to the environs. Everything is flip-flopped for him and, as he said in June, switching from left to right is "the hardest thing I could possibly ever do in my life." If he seems worried, he is not. Colledge simply wears his heart on his sleeve and refuses to sugarcoat anything.
"There're certain things you do out of instinct when you've been playing one side long enough," Colledge told Josh Weinfuss of AZCardinals.com. "Sometimes I take the wrong step. Sometimes I'm leading with the wrong hand. Again, it's slowly coming. There're things that I'm getting better at every day, and there's things that I need to focus on and try to improve."
Colledge has been around a long time, and this could be his last chance at starting for a team. He must transition smoothly, or he could be replaced.
4. Who is this year's sack master?
Over the past two seasons under coordinator Ray Horton, the pass rush came from everywhere. He brought pressure on any down and any situation, and he brought it from all levels of the defense -- defensive line, linebackers and secondary.
It is rare for an inside linebacker to lead a team in sacks, but that is just what Daryl Washington did in 2012, his nine sacks falling short of the franchise record for ILBs by half a sack (E.J. Junior, 9.5, 1984).
New coordinator Todd Bowles will unleash his defensive ends this season, and that means Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett will do much more rushing of the passer. But they can't do it all. The outside linebackers still have to be productive when pass rushing.
Sam Acho notched just four sacks last year after a seven-sack rookie season. Another disappointing season from him could hurt the defense. O'Brien Schofield also had a subpar pass-rushing effort a year ago, and newcomer Lorenzo Alexander has never been the pass-rushing type.
It may fall on rookie fourth-round pick Alex Okafor to pick up the slack for underachieving linebackers. He has the opportunity to earn early playing time with a good camp and preseason showing, and that could determine where the Cardinals will get pass-rush help.
5. Can the defense survive four games without its leader?
The four-game suspension to be served by Washington is a big blow to the defense no matter how you look at it. On one hand, general manager Steve Keim added a lot of good depth at inside linebacker in Karlos Dansby, Jasper Brinkley and rookie Kevin Minter.
On the other hand, none of the aforementioned players are of Washington's caliber.
There may be a drop-off in production and impact from the position in Washington's absence, and the first four games could be critical in determining how the season turns out.
Stumbling out of the gate is difficult to recover from; just ask the 2012 New Orleans Saints, who without head coach Sean Payton got off to an 0-4 start. They finished by going 7-5 the remainder of the way, but it was not enough and they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
When Week 5 came around last year, the Saints were 0-4 and the Cardinals were 4-0. Who'd have thought New Orleans (7-9 overall) would finish with a better record than Arizona (5-11) after that? Other than loyal Saints fans and a few shunned Cardinals fans who turned out to be correct, likely no one.
Washington's impact on the field is noticeable, and his absence may be as well. Dansby will start at one of the two inside linebacker spots. The other will come down to Brinkley or Minter.
Considering their skill sets, Minter could be the better choice. He is a surer tackler and is an adequate run defender. That will be determined through practice and preseason games, however.
Shaun Church has covered the Arizona Cardinals for more than three years on various online publications and considers himself a life-long fan. His work has been featured on Bleacher Report, Football Nation, The Boston Metro, ESPN.com and more.
Questions or comments? E-mail Shaun at firstname.lastname@example.org
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