The Cardinals report to training camp Tuesday. The time in Flagstaff will be broken up by a week-long trip to Ohio and Missouri for a couple of preseason games, feature a competition for the starting quarterback job and, inevitably, toss a curve ball or two at the coaching staff before the regular-season opener.
When they get there, there are a few issues to be resolved or to play themselves out. It’ll likely take the balance of the preseason, but a look at the top questions facing the Cards as yet another season commences:
1. Kolb or Skelton?
It has to start at quarterback. It does for every team, and it will for the Cardinals. Everyone knew that as soon as the season ended. There is no clear-cut favorite. Kolb carries with him the investment, but also the pressure. Skelton did well to rally the team to multiple wins, and frankly, less is expected of him as a former fifth-round pick. This will come down to play in preseason games. (The battle between veteran Rich Bartel and rookie Ryan Lindley for a roster spot is also intriguing, but a story for another day.) Will someone obviously step forward? That’s what the coaching staff would like. If it plays out evenly, I’d think Kolb will get the first crack. Either way, the Cardinals desperately need better, more consistent quarterback play this season. No one is disputing that.
2. Are the running backs healthy?
Ryan Williams didn’t play a down last season. Beanie Wells played the whole time – gaining more than 1,000 yards – despite what has clearly turned out to be a more-than-minor knee injury of some sort. When we last left both at the end of minicamp, Williams was just getting into 11-on-11 work after tearing his patella tendon and Wells was still not able to do any team work after his January knee surgery. The reality is that the Cards expect both to be ready for the regular season, enough so that the only veteran added in the offseason was Javarris James – a longshot to make the team at best. LaRod Stephens-Howling and Alfonso Smith are the other two backs who will have a role, but the Cards need Williams and Wells. If they are ready to play, it’s a very nice tandem to have. How much they will be used in the preseason might not be a good guide either, since the Cards will be very careful so nothing delays their regular-season work.
3. Who will be the right tackle?
In one corner, we have the fourth-round pick Bobby Massie, a rookie who most predicted would last no later than round three and a guy who, on paper, would seem to be someone who could be plugged straight into a right tackle spot that is generally seen as open after being manned by the departed Brandon Keith the last couple of seasons. But in the other corner is veteran Jeremy Bridges, the guy who filled in for an oft-injured Keith last year and someone who has no desire to let Massie simply walk in and take the starting role. Make no mistake, Massie is the starting right tackle of the future. The question is when does the future arrive for the Cards? Here’s one guess that Bridges isn’t going to make it very easy for Massie to rise up the depth chart, especially during camp and the preseason.
4. What impact will Michael Floyd make?
In a perfect world, as a No. 1 pick of the team Floyd would step right in the lineup, have a Boldin-esque – or even a Fitz-esque – statistical impact and the Cards would have a pass catcher feared enough to keep defenders occupied and not so focused on Larry Fitzgerald. In a realistic world, Floyd will probably not reach those heights. It’s not impossible, but with Andre Roberts and Early Doucet around, the guess would be that Floyd will be only a small part of the equation, at least at first. Rookie receivers often don’t arrive on the scene with a splash, especially with someone like Fitzgerald already on the field. Some of Floyd’s impact too will be dictated by quarterback play. Coaches like the strides Roberts has made, so it will be interesting how the playing time is split between the two.
5. How will the cornerbacks be sorted out?
We’ll start with Patrick Peterson, because he was always going to start. Beyond that, it’ll be a cornucopia of choices that will need to be filtered through the colander of camp. First, the reality that often times, the Cards will employ five defensive backs. While safeties Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes and Rashad Johnson could be used together, three cornerbacks will be more likely. So after Peterson, who steps forward for the other starting corner and nickel spots? There’s free-agent signee William Gay, rehabbed Greg Toler, rookie Jamell Fleming, the man-who-always-finds-a-way Michael Adams and last year’s early starter, A.J. Jefferson. Even if the Cards keep five cornerbacks, not everyone sticks around. Gay, who would seem to fit well into the departed Richard Marshall’s hybrid corner/safety role, makes sense as an early favorite. Toler was a starter before he wrecked his knee. This will be a competition worth watching.
6. Will there be enough rush from the outside?
In defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s scheme, the Cardinals got sacks last season – they were seventh in the NFL. But pressuring the quarterback is about more than just sacks, and in the end, it’s better when the guys on the outside can cause havoc even when there isn’t blitzing. Sam Acho showed a lot of that as a rookie last season, but he’s still learning too. And O’Brien Schofield, the anticipated starter at the other outside linebacker spot, has flashed but has never gotten the consistent playing time to show one way or the other what he will do on the field. There are veterans like Clark Haggans, Quentin Groves and Brandon Williams in the mix, but in the end much of this will come down to the impact Acho and Schofield can make.
7. Can Levi Brown continue what he did at the end of the season?
The story of Brown has been told and recounted many times. When the team was forced to cut him loose before free agency because of an unwieldy contract, it looked like his time in Arizona would be over. Instead, the team brought him back with a confidence he can build on the second half of 2011, which may have been the best stretch of his career. It’s been a bumpy ride for Brown since coming to Arizona, in large part because of where he was drafted. The Cardinals believed in him to continue to try and make it work, though. With the addition of free agent Adam Snyder at right guard, the Cards feel they have solidified the middle of the line (with C Lyle Sendlein and LG Daryn Colledge). Now they see what happens at right tackle (see No. 3 in our list) and Brown.
8. How will Patrick Peterson develop?
Peterson was a Pro Bowl return man. He had a record-tying four touchdowns on punt runbacks, and it should have been five. It overshadowed his struggles learning at cornerback, although by the end of the season you could see why Peterson is considered a potential elite cornerback talent. The Cards need him to come along in that area. If he can become one of the guys in the league that teams try not to test, it would open up that many more possibilities for the defense.
9. What are the chances Rob Housler emerges?
In the NFL these days, the tight end position has undergone a renaissance, especially for the taller, more athletic pass catchers who turn into matchup nightmares for defenses. Housler, the 2011 third-round pick, is potentially one of those guys. If Kolb had been able to hit Housler twice wide-open down the middle early last season, Housler would have already made a splash with a couple of touchdowns. Instead, the passes were incomplete, and later Housler battled a groin injury that severely limited his time. He has to stay healthy, but if he can, he has a chance to gain some attention as a breakout player.
10 Can Stewart Bradley rebound?
When Bradley was signed a year ago, it was thought the inside linebacker spot inhabited by Paris Lenon would transition to him alongside Daryl Washington. But Lenon’s effectiveness and smarts were underestimated, and his play made it impossible to take him out of the lineup. Bradley, meanwhile, struggled like many newcomers to adjust to his new situation, never make the kind of impact that was expected and took a paycut to stick around. Lenon hasn’t gone anywhere, and Bradley’s role has morphed so that he’ll be used both inside and out depending on the play. Both he and the team are expecting more this year.