The Cardinals will begin the games that count Sept. 8, when they host the Chargers on a Monday night. From next week – when the players stream in for the beginning of training camp – until then, the roster will be formed through practice, roster moves, potential injuries and the like. With the pads on, there are still details to be worked out for the newest version of Bruce Arians’ team. The first five most important questions facing the Cards were posted here already. Here are five more:
1. Is Andre Ellington ready to carry the load?
Unlike last season, when Rashard Mendenhall remained the starter all season at running back even as Ellington emerged as a potential star, Ellington is unquestioned at the top of the depth chart going into his second season. Still a question is how much he will touch the ball. Arians has thrown out the possibility of 25 to 30 a game combined carries and receptions, although that would be a massive jump over his average of 10.5 in 2013. Even with an expansion into a part-time slot receiver role, Ellington figures more likely to get to 20 to 22 touches. That’s still a plenty big workload, but it would allow Jonathan Dwyer and/or Stepfan Taylor to carve out decent supporting roles. It’s worth noting too that Arians last year made the point too much put on Ellington could be disastrous for the offense if he were to get hurt.
2. Will John Abraham remain a double-digit sack man?
After a slow start that came in part to his being relegated to a backup spot, Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy took over when Lorenzo Alexander and Sam Acho went down for the season. It turned out to be a blessing for the Cardinals’ defense. Shaughnessy turned out to be key setting the edge for the Cardinals’ top-ranked run defense. And Abraham ramped up to notch 11½ sacks after his slow start. There are other contributors that will be needed. Defensive end Calais Campbell has shown the ability to pressure the passer. Yet, even at 36, Abraham will still be seen as the team’s top pass rusher. Abraham believes 10 sacks should happen – he’s even on record as saying he wants to gun for 20 – and that’s the kind of production the Cardinals will need.
3. What Cromartie did the Cardinals sign?
Antonio Cromartie has made multiple Pro Bowls as a cornerback, including last season. But he also admittedly didn’t have his best year last season while dealing with a nagging hip injury. He looked healthy this offseason – he cautioned he wanted to see how he did in camp – and if he can play at the level he was a couple of years ago, he and Patrick Peterson should create a formidable starting cornerback duo. That would create a lot of options for defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
4. How much of an impact will the draft class make?
Arians is never afraid of playing young players. Last year’s top pick, Jonathan Cooper, was going to be starting until he got hurt. You’d expect this year’s top pick, safety Deone Bucannon, to be in the same place by the end of camp. The Cardinals do have some depth in the back if Bucannon isn’t ready, but with Tyrann Mathieu’s injury, it makes a lot of sense to have Bucannon on the field. Beyond that, tight end Troy Niklas, wide receiver John Brown and defensive linemen Kareem Martin and Ed Stinson all figure to play prominent roles as reserves. How much time they get will be based on their progress in camp – Niklas, for instance, has barely been on the field because of injuries – but they do figure to play as GM Steve Keim tries to lower the roster’s average age.
5. Who will be kicking when the season starts?
Jay Feely is back again and he remains confident he will be the choice as kicker when the season starts. But the Cardinals have brought in a pair of younger but untested legs – Chandler Catanzaro and Danny Hrapmann – in a quest to get younger and have bigger legs, particularly on kickoffs. A three-man battle at kicker isn’t unprecedented but it is rare. This is a battle that will likely only be sorted out through preseason games. But it is also an easy competition to watch. Do the field goal attempts go through the uprights? Do the kickoffs sail deep in the end zone? It is certainly a position to keep an eye on. The question: Who will be entrusted to kick that 39-yard field goal to win or tie the game with three seconds left?