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Arizona Cardinals 2018 Season Preview: The Quest To Reload

A new era begins with first-year coach Steve Wilks at the helm

Steve Wilks is ready to hit the ground running in his first year as Cardinals coach.
Steve Wilks is ready to hit the ground running in his first year as Cardinals coach.

Cardinals coach Steve Wilks is aware of the low external expectations set for his team in 2018.

After an impressive five-year run under coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer, their retirements have left many wondering if a rebuild is on the horizon in the desert. Wilks is entering his first season as a head coach at the NFL level, so a transition year with difficulties would be normal.

Wilks isn't subscribing to the theory. He has been hyper-focused since arriving in January, and his plan doesn't include peaking years down the line.

"This is not a rebuild," Wilks said on the first day of training camp. "This is a re-tool. I know a lot of people outside the organization – and I may be looking at some (in the local media) – that aren't giving us an opportunity or a chance, and that's fine. But we've got a lot of talent, a lot of great coaches, and we're going to make some noise this year."

Wilks comes over from the Panthers, where he was the defensive coordinator. He brought a host of coaches and a new 4-3 defensive scheme. His top two quarterbacks are new. The Cardinals signed veteran Sam Bradford in free agency and added Josh Rosen with the No. 10 overall selection in the draft. All-Pro running back David Johnson is healthy again, while wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, cornerback Patrick Peterson and defensive end Chandler Jones give him other elite pieces with which to work.

Wilks understands well the precious seat in which he sits – "I feel very privileged, very humbled, to be one of 32 in the whole world," Wilks said – and does not want to waste any time proving his worth. It's only been a couple of years since the Cardinals were talked about as Super Bowl contenders. Wilks believes he can return the team quickly to that rarified air.

"I'm not satisfied about being here," Wilks said. "I said from Day One, I want to make a difference. It's all about trying to bring a world championship here to the Arizona Cardinals."



Players To Watch

RB David Johnson – The Cardinals' 2017 season took a huge hit in the opener when Johnson was lost for the season with a dislocated wrist. The star running back is healthy again and will be a huge part of the game plan. Johnson talks often about reaching 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving, and it's not out of the realm of possibility.

QB Sam Bradford – The former No. 1 overall pick has shown his pure arm talent throughout the preseason. Bradford threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns in the 2017 regular season opener with Minnesota before missing all but two quarters the rest of the way with knee injuries. His availability could play a big role in the team's fortunes.

WR Larry Fitzgerald – The future Hall of Famer continues to defy Father Time, accumulating at least 100 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards in each of the past three seasons. The 35-year-old is the Cardinals' go-to wideout and is expected to be Bradford's favorite target. The prime of Fitzgerald's career was excellent, and his ability to sustain success into his mid-30s is just as impressive.

LT D.J. Humphries – The athletic blindside protector has shown his potential in flashes over the past two seasons but injuries have limited his impact. Humphries has rare athleticism and seems to be grasping the finer technical points of the position. Humphries can solidify himself as a quality NFL left tackle if he remains healthy and continues to progress.

QB Josh Rosen – If the No. 10 overall pick sits on the bench all season, there won't be much to see. But Bradford has an extensive injury history, and if he suffers any ailments during the season, the Cardinals would likely turn to Rosen. He showed impressive traits in the preseason and will be a big part of this team's trajectory over the next few seasons.

Notable Losses: QB Carson Palmer, WR John Brown, T Jared Veldheer, WR Jaron Brown, RB Kerwynn Williams.

Notable Additions: QB Sam Bradford, G Justin Pugh, QB Josh Rosen, WR Christian Kirk, C Mason Cole.

Three Keys To The Offense

1. Pound The Ball – Wilks has been adamant that the Cardinals are going to establish the run. The starting offensive line was impressive in the preseason, especially former Pro Bowler Mike Iupati. If the Cardinals can consistently churn out rushing yards, Bradford will be under less duress and the passing game should find success. If it doesn't, the Cardinals will be taken out of their comfort zone, where mistakes could happen.

2. A Third Option – Johnson and Fitzgerald are known commodities and will be leaned on heavily throughout the year. However, defenses can focus on stopping them, which would force others to step up. There are a host of possibilities behind them, including tight end Ricky Seals-Jones, wide receiver Christian Kirk and wide receiver Chad Williams, but no clear-cut pecking order. The Cardinals likely need at least one more dynamic contributor for the offense to hit its maximum capacity.

3. Stay Healthy – Bradford, Johnson and Iupati all missed a huge chunk of 2017. Humphries, left guard Justin Pugh and right tackle Andre Smith each missed significant action as well. The Cardinals have more talented pieces on offense than they are given credit for, but the injury history is concerning. They need the majority of their impact starters to be available in 2018.

Table inside Article
2017 Team Totals
Points Per Game 18.4 (25th in NFL)
Total Offense 314.1 yards per game (22nd in NFL)
Passing 227.5 yards per game (15th in NFL)
Net Yards Per Pass Attempt 5.6 (23rd in NFL)
Yards Per Carry 3.4 (31st in NFL)
Turnovers 25 (23rd in NFL)
Table inside Article
2017 Individual Leaders
QB Carson Palmer 1,978 passing yards 9 TD, 7 INT 84.4 passer rating
WR Larry Fitzgerald 109 catches 1,156 yards 6 TD
RB Adrian Peterson 129 carries 448 yards 2 TD
WR J.J. Nelson 29 catches 508 yards 2 TD
WR Jaron Brown 31 catches 477 yards 4 TD
TE Jermaine Gresham 33 catches 322 yards 2 TD
RB Kerwynn Williams 120 carries 426 yards TD



Players To Watch

DE Chandler Jones – The superstar edge rusher led the NFL with 17 sacks a season ago and should again be a thorn in the side of quarterbacks. Jones has moved from outside linebacker to defensive end but should have a similar job description. Pressuring a quarterback is the biggest key in the modern-day NFL and Jones will aim for another standout season.

S Budda Baker – The 2017 second-round pick showed star potential as a rookie and has earned a prime role defensively as the nickelback in sub-packages. Baker is a versatile piece and will be expected to excel in pass coverage, run support and on blitzes. With Tyrann Mathieu's departure, Baker is the new jack-of-all-trades playmaker at defensive back.

CB Patrick Peterson – The All-Pro cover man has not gotten much action the past few years, but a more zone-heavy scheme may help Peterson become more involved. He had an interception return for a touchdown in the third preseason game and has hopes of doing more of that in the regular season. Peterson would love to make more splash plays in 2018, but even if he doesn't, taking away elite receivers is a huge boon to the overall success of the defense.

LB Deone Bucannon – It was a frustrating 2017 for Bucannon, who had offseason ankle surgery and never felt quite right during the season. He suffered a slight setback with a knee injury in training camp but looked good upon his return and is now fully healthy. Bucannon is an impact talent and will be a critical piece in the middle of the defense.

DT Robert Nkemdiche – Wilks has shown confidence in the former first-round pick, penciling him in as a starter on the defensive line. Nkemdiche had some nice moments during training camp but has been limited by a foot injury. He should be ready for the regular season. This is a huge year for him after failing to live up to expectations in his first two.

Notable Losses: S Tyrann Mathieu, CB Tramon Williams, S Tyvon Branch, LB Kareem Martin, LB Karlos Dansby

Notable Additions: S Tre Boston, CB Jamar Taylor, CB Bené Benwikere, DE Benson Mayowa

Three Keys To The Defense

1. Force Turnovers – The Cardinals did a masterful job registering takeaways in the preseason, accumulating 17 in four games. If they can carry that ability to the regular season, this team should exceed expectations. The pieces are in place, as is the mentality, but the opportunities can often be fleeting and the defense must take advantage.

2. Star Play From Stars – There is some serious high-end ability on the defense. Peterson has made the Pro Bowl in each of his seven seasons. Bakers looked like a burgeoning star as a rookie. Jones was a sack maniac. If all three stay healthy and perform up to their capabilities, it's a fantastic starting point for the defense.

3. Stop The Run – The Cardinals have a lot of talent in the secondary, and teams forced to throw a lot will run the risk of getting intercepted. In order to make opposing offenses one-dimensional, the defense needs to stop the run. It has been a point of emphasis by Wilks, and the group has been good in this phase the past few years. It only allowed 3.5 yards per carry last season, third in the NFL. Defensive tackle Corey Peters plays a big role in bottling up the interior.

Table inside Article
2017 Team Totals
Points Per Game Allowed 22.6 (19th in NFL)
Total Defense 310.9 yards per game (6th in NFL)
Passing Yards Allowed 221.3 per game (14th in NFL)
Yards Per Pass Allowed 6.3 (10th in NFL)
Rushing Yards Allowed 89.6 per game (6th in NFL)
Yards Per Carry Allowed 3.5 (3rd in NFL)
Turnovers 21 (16th in NFL)
Table inside Article
2017 Individual Leaders
LB Chandler Jones 68 tackles 17 sacks 28 TFL
LB Karlos Dansby 106 tackles 10 TFL INT
S Antoine Bethea 58 tackles 5 INT FF
LB Deone Bucannon 90 tackles 2 FF INT
S Tyrann Mathieu 76 tackles 2 INT FF
CB Patrick Peterson 33 tackles INT FR
S Budda Baker 61 tackles 2 FF Sack
S Tyvon Branch 65 tackles FF



Players To Watch

PR Christian Kirk – The Cardinals have not had a dangerous punt returner since Peterson scored four return touchdowns as a rookie. Kirk, this year's second-round pick, looks natural catching the ball and makes decisive moves. Any big returns would be welcomed with open arms after the Cardinals' struggles in the area in past years.

P Andy Lee – The Cardinals had been plagued by punting issues for a couple seasons before Lee came in last year and solidified the spot. He signed a multi-year contract extension in the offseason and kicked well in the preseason. While this isn't the most glorious position, Lee has done a nice job turning it from a weakness into a strength.

K Phil Dawson – The veteran kicker starter 2017 slowly but found a groove down the stretch. He has familiarity with long snapper Aaron Brewer and holder Lee, so the setup should not be an issue. Undrafted free agent kicker Matt McCrane pushed Dawson in the preseason, but the experience the veteran brings can be invaluable in pressure situations.

Notable Losses: PR/KR Kerwynn Williams

Notable Additions: PR Christian Kirk; KR T.J. Logan

Three Keys To Special Teams

Attention To Detail – Wilks has put a large emphasis on special teams during practices. It's a group that is often rotating personnel so much of the success comes down to coaching, and Jeff Rodgers has done a nice job if the preseason is any indication. The Cardinals struggled on special teams in the past few seasons but renewed emphasis on this phase figures to result in more success in 2018.

Know The Rules – There have been some rules changes that will affect kickoffs and where players can line up on field goal attempts. Live-action penalties tend to happen on special teams because there are so many players running around, but it's integral not to make mistakes before the snap. Rodgers will undoubtedly be going over the rules ad nauseum and the players must pay attention to the changes.

Block And Tackle – The field-position game could be a big one if the Cardinals' offense takes some time to heat up this year, which puts the onus on the return and coverage units. The team rarely won this battle in recent years but Rodgers has brought some schemes that have looked effective during the exhibition slate. Kirk and Logan will aim to set up the offense while the gunners need to do their job in coverage.

Table inside Article
2017 Team Totals
Field Goal Percentage 80.0 (21st in NFL)
Extra Point Percentage 88.5 (29th in NFL)
Yards Per Punt 47.3 (6th in NFL)
Net Yards Per Punt 41.5 (17th in NFL)
Kickoff Return Average 20.4 yards (22nd in NFL)
Punt Return Average 7.0 (22nd in NFL)
Table inside Article
2017 Individual Leaders
K Phil Dawson 32-of-40 FG 23-of-26 PAT
P Andy Lee 88 punts 47.3/yd average; 41.5/yd net
KR/PR Kerwynn Williams 20.4 yds/kick return 6.5 yds/punt return

Images of the players who made the team after Saturday's cuts