Forecast NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

Earlier we took a look at the Seattle Seahawks and what we expect from the team this season. Next up on the NFC West list is the Arizona Cardinals…

This is another team that played far better down the stretch in 2011, mimicking Seattle’s run after an awful start to the year. They were 7-2 in their last 9 games including a win against the 49ers and shaky, but talented Cowboys and Eagles teams. The defense played far better down the stretch, but I still have plenty of questions about this team.

The biggest question for this team is whether Kevin Kolb or John Skelton will be the starter to begin the season. Obviously, the big investment was made in Kolb, but frankly he was below average last year and made numerous mistakes in critical moments. He doesn’t handle pressure well, doesn’t read the field as well as the hype said he did, and now he’s dealing with serious concussion issues. He also doesn’t have great arm talent to begin with. This was a questionable move to begin with as the Eagles tend to make QBs look far better than they actually are…see AJ Feeley and Donovan McNabb.

Now if we turn our attention to John Skelton, we see another QB with multiple question marks and a guy who probably should not start for a winning team in the NFL. But with Kolb as his competition, I think he has a good chance to win this job if they have the guts to ignore the contracts each of these guys have. Skelton has a scattershot arm and poor decision-making skills, but he has size, a decent feel for the pocket and can get the ball down the field much better than Kolb. Most importantly, he understood the protocol of their offense, which is to lob the ball up for Larry Fitzgerald repeatedly. That formula, plus a few clutch throws was enough to win despite throwing 14 interceptions in just 8 games. If he can give Michael Floyd the same treatment, I think Skelton starts despite leaving a lot to be desired. As a side note, Ryan Lindley is by far the best passer of this group, but he needs at least a year to work on his footwork and learn an NFL offense.

The strength of this team on offense is its WRs. Fitzgerald seems to have been eclipsed by Calvin Johnson and some other young receivers, but he remains a top 5 guy just because he catches any ball in his vicinity, even when he’s covered well. Michael Floyd lacks true #1 speed, but as an outside receiver opposite Fitzgerald he should do just fine if the QB trusts him enough to let him win his battles. He has great size and a similarly great catch radius. Andre Roberts improved down the stretch last year and may displace Early Doucet as the #3 WR. TE is a weakness for this team as Rob Housler showed very little as a rookie, Todd Heap is fading quickly and Jeff King was OK but has to rehab a torn quadriceps before the season.

The RB situation will be interesting, to say the least. Beanie Wells has knee issues and had some sort of complex mystery procedure done recently, which doesn’t sound promising. Even when healthy, he is just decent and not a complete back in any sense of the term. Ryan Williams is a natural runner with a better chance to be a true #1 back, but he’s recovering from his ruptured patellar tendon and has to show that he is ready physically and mentally to return to the punishment of being a running back. LaRod Stephens-Howling is a nice special teams player and return man behind those guys but won’t get it done if he’s called upon to carry the load. This is overall the worst RB situation in the NFC West until proven otherwise.

The offensive line is always a question mark for this team. When Kurt Warner was at the helm, they got away with below-par talent getting coached up by Russ Grimm. This hasn’t quite been the case lately, and they once again didn’t do anything radical to change that this offseason. They added Adam Snyder, who is a decent swing player who can start on a good offensive line but probably should remain a swing backup in most cases. Snyder will join Daryn Colledge and Lyle Sendlein on the interior, giving them a trio of players who are just OK. I like Bobbie Massie, and he’ll probably start at one of the tackle positions, but the fact that they’re counting on a 4th round pick to do that tells you something. Levi Brown is below average at best, but he was brought back in light of few alternatives. I thought this team would be more aggressive in addressing their concerns but they clearly are counting on Russ Grimm to work some magic again. They did pick up a couple guys in the back end of the draft that could develop in Senio Kelemete and Nate Potter.

This unit carried the team down the stretch last year, and has started to gel a bit more. They have the potential to be solid if they continue to build upon that.

Starting up front, you have to like what Calais Campbell has become for them in the 3-4. He’s progressing towards double digit sacks in a scheme that usually does not facilitate that much to its DEs. Darnell Dockett hasn’t quite been the dominant force he used to be, but is still definitely solid. Dan Williams has been a huge bust, which is disappointing because he looked like a real force at Tennessee. He’s had problems staying in shape, but reportedly worked hard this offseason and might be able to salvage his career. If he can contribute, they’ll be pretty solid.

Their linebackers are a mixed bag. Daryl Washington is looking to break out at ILB, but Stewart Bradley and Paris Lenon are not quality partners for him on the inside. Things look more promising on the outside with the rise of O’Brien Schofield and Sam Acho, who combined for 11.5 sacks. They’ll have to count on those guys though, because there’s not much beyond them. This is a group that could be decent if everyone stays healthy. If there are any injuries amongst the starters, they will be lacking severely. They could have done more to address their depth here.

The DBs hinge on the play of Patrick Peterson, who looked better down the stretch as a CB after a shaky start. He still has to work on his technique and needs to avoid the excessive pass interference penalties he racked up last year. He does have the potential to be the #1 CB they need, and gets huge points for being the best return man in the game currently. William Gay and Greg Toler are probably OK as starters on the other side but not spectacular. Jamell Fleming has a great chance to push for playing time as a rookie. They’ll use Adrian Wilson at safety with a mix of Kerry Rhodes/James Sanders/Rashad Johnson next to him, which is a decent group but not up to par with what SF and Seattle have protecting the deep middle. This group has decent depth but really needs a good pass rush in front of them, which they may or may not get.

Overall, this is a middling team in my opinion. They look to be somewhere between 6-10 and 8-8. I have a hard time saying they’ll be any better with so many personnel question marks. They do have some elite talent, but lack a lot of important foundational pieces to make it all click. In that respect, they look somewhat like the 49ers back in 2007-2008, and I expect them to perform somewhat similarly.