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The 2017 season did not go the Arizona Cardinals way. In the first game of the season, they lost all-world running back David Johnson to a wrist injury that would keep him out indefinitely, forcing them to rely on Andre Ellington and a cadre of unproven runners.

During a trip over the pond to London to play the L.A. Rams, quarterback Carson Palmer suffered an arm injury during a 33-0 loss, paving the way for now Browns quarterback (that tells you what you need to know) Drew Stanton to underwhelm for the rest of the season.

On the first day of 2018, head coach Bruce Arians announced his retirement from coaching after 42 years, the last five at his only head coaching position during his career in Arizona.

Considering those events, and coming off of consecutive 7-8-1 and 8-8 seasons (both missing the playoffs), the apprehension and uncertainty surrounding this team and it’s fanbase are completely understood.

First-time head coach Steve Wilks, fresh off of a very successful five-year run coaching the Carolina Panther’s defense, inherits a team with a boatload of talent on offense, and some serious wrecking ball potential on defense.

So in celebration of the 2018 NFL offseason coming to a close, let’s take a look ahead at the 2018 Arizona Cardinals

A Look Ahead At The 2018 Arizona Cardinals

Biggest Strengths

1. Defense, Defense, Defense

This side of the ball is absolutely stacked. If the 2018 Arizona Cardinals want to make it back to the playoffs, they have to play like it. With the new head coach’s specialty being defense and seeing his crew in Carolina the past half-decade, there would be hope for improvement even without the talent available.

Patrick Peterson has followed the opposing team’s best wideout for years, and the expectation is he’ll be moved around even more this season. His elite athleticism gives him the ability to match up almost anywhere other than the defensive line. Expect to see him rushing the passer more than ever. 

Chandler Jones has been a monster since coming over from New England, tallying 17 sacks in 2017, with no signs of slowing down.

Budda Baker had such a strong rookie season at safety the team felt comfortable allowing fan-favorite Tyrann Mathieu leave for what he thinks is greener pastures in Houston. Baker was a tackling machine in 2017, and with more time with the first team, we should see his interceptions and pass breakups rise drastically.

*Bonus: Robert Nkemdiche. In two lost years, the former 1st-round draft pick has done next to nothing. Yes, he had one recovered fumble for a touchdown, but outside of that, he has 13 tackles in his entire career. And no sacks. This athletic dynamo out of the University of Mississippi is in a make-or-break season for his career, and if Wilks can get anything out of the defensive tackle, this defense will compete as a top-five unit in the league.

2. New Look Offense

This offense is almost complete. That “almost” will come in later, but for now, the return of David Johnson is enough to get me excited for the season.

His injury was a wrist injury, so he should have no problem being just as explosive as he was in his 2016 campaign. Sure, he could hold out, but after missing almost all of last year, I expect him to be on the field, and on it a lot. The elusive 1,000 yard rushing/1,000 yard receiving season is an impossibility for most players, but not Johnson. He is a legitimate Offensive Player of the Year candidate for the 2018 Arizona Cardinals.

The quarterback room is improved as well. Offseason acquisition Sam Bradford has shown that, when healthy, he is among the elite players at the most important position. However, as any football fan is most likely aware, Bradford’s name has become synonymous with injuries over his career, which is why drafting Josh Rosen was such a fantastic pick. Thought of as the most “NFL Ready” quarterback in the draft by many of the NFL’s cognoscenti, the thought is to give him a redshirt season, but even though it is expected for Bradford to win the job to start the season, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Rosen before the season is finished. Throw in a wide receiving corps that includes all-time great Larry Fitzgerald, and there’s a real chance this offense gets red hot.

Biggest Weakness

1. Offensive Line (The “almost” from before)

It is understandable that not every position group on a team is going to be best in the league, however, the offensive line is one of the most questionable position groups heading into the season.

Sure, they spent a draft pick on Mason Cole, and Justin Pugh came in through Free Agency, but this line is aging and injury-prone. Left tackle D.J. Humphries is coming off of an injury. Mike Iupati hasn’t been the same player since leaving the 49ers, and at age 31 he is no spring chicken. A.Q. Shipley is a fine center. But when the most reliable piece you have is just “fine,” you need improvement.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has historically done a lot with a little. He was the OC when Tim Tebow made the playoffs for the Broncos, so that says a lot. Another factor that could run in Arizona’s favor is new offensive line coach Ray Brown, brought over by Wilks, Brown always had a solid line in Carolina, even when he didn’t have the big-name pieces to work with. We’ll see if he has any of that magic left because early returns look like he is going to need it.

2. The NFC West

The Cardinals would be favored to make the playoffs if they were in any division but their own or the NFC South. Fact is, the NFC West is a gauntlet again. Which, is the way it should be.

The L.A. Rams went from 0-100 out of nowhere under Sean McVay, and they just acquired four Pro Bowlers in the offseason at the cost of a lot of money and some draft picks.

The 49ers are a sexy pick for the playoffs after a 6-10 season thanks to Kyle Shanahan and the high expectations for QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy G exceeded those expectations after going 5-0 in starts to end the season after coming over from the Patriots for just a 2nd round pick (thanks, Bill). Growing pains are expected in year two now that teams have tape available, but they will still be competitive.

Finally, the Seattle Seahawks have been a mainstay at the top of the league since drafting Russell Wilson to lead their team. However, age and attrition have decimated their once-deep core of talent.

Richard Sherman is gone, Marshawn Lynch is a Raider, Jimmy Graham is catching balls from Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau, Michael Bennett is in Philadelphia now, Cliff Avril was released… but they still have Wilson, which gives them a better-than-average chance to win some games.

Potential Surprises

1. Brice Butler! What, you aren’t excited? Okay that’s understandable, but if the 2018 Arizona Cardinals are going to improve, they need unheralded players to step up.

The former Raiders and Cowboys wide receiver has never had more than 16 catches, 317 yards, or 3 touchdowns in a season. Does not inspire a lot of hope. However, in limited time last season he was Dallas QB Dak Prescott‘s best big-play receiver. It’s surprising they let him go, but that seems to be the Cowboys’ mantra when it comes to WR.

Butler is a straight up burner capable of making athletic grabs. He was timed at 4.37 at the 2013 NFL Draft, and plays even faster on the field. Most of the attention from the defense will go to Larry Fitzgerald and highly-touted rookie Christian Kirk, and rightly so, however they’re both best suited to the slot, which Fitz will win, forcing Kirk to adjust to a position he is capable of playing, but which will take him some time. This adds up to the perfect chance for Butler to get the fans to finally remember his name.

2. Chase Edmonds. “Who?” you ask, perplexed. “Chase Edmonds,” I respond, “I typed his name right there.”

This rook is as under-the-radar as it comes. The diminutive runner out of Fordham rushed for 5,862 yards in college, however he did deal with injuries his senior year. He has excellent hands, even running some WR drills at the scouting combine this year. If he can get over his injuries, expect him to win the backup job to David Johnson and play a similar role to what Duke Johnson Jr. does with the Browns, except hopefully with a few more wins to back him up for the 2018 Arizona Cardinals than the 2017 Cleveland Browns. Or the 2016 Browns. Seriously Cleveland, get it together. An explosive change-of-pace back to give a workhorse a breather is a very valuable piece to the puzzle.

The 2018 Arizona Cardinals are in a tough division and conference for this NFL season, but by relying on their strengths, covering the weaknesses, and getting a little luck from some unheralded players, this could be the season to bring playoff football back to the desert.

Sports Al Dente 2019

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