The Arizona Cardinals were one of the NFL's most interesting teams to watch last year, and 2014 should be no different. A 10-6 finish to 2013 would be a great year by just about any teams standards, but when that 10-6 record still doesn't get you into the playoffs then it's hard to be excited about 10 wins that got you virtually nowhere.
One thing the Cardinals did make apparent last year is the NFC west is not just for Seattle and San Francisco to have a chance to win this year. The Cardinals have a lot of pieces that can help take them to the NFC west division crown. They also have some things missing to call them a playoff-calibar team just quite yet.
Let's run down the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Arizona Cardinals heading into 2014 ...
THE GOOD: Young Talent
Arizona has key young talent at many positions, showing that with the right free agent pick ups, and solid drafting that this team will be built to win for a long time coming. On the offensive side of the ball they have two hot emerging stars at thier positions, wide out Michael Floyd and running back Andre Ellington.
Michael Floyd made huge leaps and bounds his second year in the league in 2013. Larry Fitzgerald has been looking for a running mate ever since Anquan Boldin left town for Baltimore in 2010 and last year Floyd showed why he is that guy. Floyd put up Arizona's first 1,000 yard receiving season (1041) by someone not named Fitzgerald since Boldin had 1024 yards back in 2009. Floyd has only played two season in the NFL with the Cardinals, but he improved drastically from rookie to sophomore seasons. He got an additional 26 targets (112 vs 86) catching 20 more balls (65 vs 45) while almost doubling his yardage output (1041 vs 562) and snagging an extra three (5 vs 2) touchdowns. If history holds true, then Floyd's third year could very well be his break out season, making him the man in the desert going forward.
Andre Ellington may be entering his second season of NFL ball, but head coach Bruce Arians has all the confidence in the world in his starting running back. Arians said this offseason that the Cardinals "want to build our offense around him." Him being the aforementioned Ellington. Arians believes Ellington has the build to touch the ball 30 times a game between his rushes and ability to catch and glide out of the backfield. He's already added more than 10 pouds of muscle this offseason to bulk up for the extra touches, not to mention with the retirement of Rashard Mendenhall, Ellington will have very little competition behind him from the likes of Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer who will be more of a blocking back than anything. Ellington averaged 6.51 yards per touch in 2013 on only 157 touches. Look for 2014 to feature a lot more of the speedster out of Clemson.
Defensively the Cardinals have a wealth of young talent as well. Calais Campbell is one of the leagues best defensive ends although he tends to be overlooked at a position filled with aging stars. Of defensive ends with at least 9.0 sacks in 2013, only Chandler Jones (79), Justin Tuck (63), and Greg Hardy (59) had more tackles than Campbell's 58. His 6 passes defended were 5th most among D-linemen. The Arizona secondary also boasts two of the leagues best young defenders in Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Peterson is always in the conversation of the leagues best cornerbacks, while Mathieu was questioned about his work ethic and character coming into the NFL in 2013, he showed the Cardinals made a great investment in him with his 68 tackles, 1 sack, 2 picks, and a forced fumble before tearing up his knee in early December. Not only are both Peterson and Mathieu great in the secondary, but both are versitle players. Peterson can line up as a wide receiver if need be and also is one of the best at returning kicks (1323 return yards and 4 touchdowns in three seasons). And Mathieu spends time playing free safety as well as the nickle corner in slot situations.
THE BAD: Larry Fitzgerald
Now don't take this the wrong way because Larry Fitzgerald is still one of the best receivers and one of the best leaders in the NFL, but he is on the decline. He will be 31 come the start of 2014 and although the 30+ barrier isn't as devestating for receivers as it is for running backs, it still is the start of the downward slope. Fitz had a stretch from 2007-2011 where he avraged 93 receptions for 1297 yards and 10 touchdowns. His last two years however saw a dramatic decline in production. It was the first time in his career he had back-to-back years with under 1,000 receiving yards. His 11.2 yards/catch in 2012 was a career low, and 11.6 in 2013 was a very close thrid worst for him. His 136 targets last year were his lowest since 2006, and his 4 touchdowns in 2012 were by far a caeer low. The one bright spot over the last 32 games for Fitz are his 10 touchdowns in 2013, first time with double-digit TD's since 2009.
With the emergance of Michael Floyd, addition of two speedy receivers in Ted Ginn Jr. (free agency), and John Brown via the draft -being compared to the Colts T.Y. Hilton- and the pass catching ability of Andre Ellington out of the backfield, Fitzgerald will have a lot less pressure on his shoulders in 2014. As long as Fitz can take a step back and let Floyd take over at top dog on the Cardinals receiving chart, then this team will have the ability to make a run at the NFC west crown even with two match ups each with perennial favorites Seattle and San Francisco.
THE UGLY: Offensive Line
According to profootballfocus.com, the Arizona Cardinals had the leagues worst offensive line in 2013. 32nd out of 32. Bottom of the barrel. Oh and that only stayed the same from 2012 when they were also the worst of the worst. Now they did make moves over the past two seasons to improve the protections for Carson Palmer. The drafted guard Jonathan Cooper out of North Carolina with their first round pick in 2013. Unfortunately Cooper broke his leg before the 2013 campaign began and missed the entire season. The addition of Jared Veldheer this offseason will be a HUGE upgrade at left tackle. Center Lyle Sendlein is solid in the middle. The right side of the line, featuring the leagues worst tackle Bradley Sowell (-38.4), still will need work during and after the 2014 season.
The line showed slight upside in the second half of the season in 2013 allowing 18 sacks in the final 8 games as opposed to 23 in the first half of the year. Cooper and Veldheer coming in to solidify the left side of the line will give Palmer more confidence to stand in the pocket but this group will still be in the bottom half of the league come the end of 2014, and if anything stands in the way of Arizona making the playoffs, odds are it will start up front in the offensive trenches.
Arizona has more good than bad or even ugly going on for them. A head coach who proved he can handle a young team and adversity when he was in Indianapolis. Emerging stars at several positions on both sides of the ball. And more-than-quality leadership with veterans who have seen it all in Carson Palmer, newly acquired Antonio Cromartie, and Larry Fitzgerald should give this cardinals team a great shot at a playoff berth in 2014 even in the tough NFC west.