Among the top questions for the Cardinals heading into training camp (clockwise from top left): The improvement of QB Carson Palmer, the rehab of safety Tyrann Mathieu, the fit of left tackle Jared Veldheer and the ascension of inside linebacker Kevin Minter.
The Cardinals head to training camp in a little over a week in a much better place than last season. A year ago, the Cards were trying to figure out a new coach and were going to be going through a different kind of camp at University of Phoenix Stadium for the first time. Now, Bruce Arians has a tangible proof of what he does – he frequently notes that players have an easier time learning from video from the past than watching another team do what he was asking for, which was the case last offseason and camp – and 10 wins showed it worked.
Nevertheless, every NFL team goes into training camp with questions that need to be answered. The Cardinals are no different. Here are some of the most important things the Cards must learn about themselves heading into the 2014 season.
1. What kind of improvement can Carson Palmer make?
You can dissect a team's chances by breaking down the roster, but there is no more important position than the quarterback, and no player is under more pressure to be effective than the signal-caller. In short, without that a team has no chance. That's why the Cardinals traded for Palmer last year, and in the end, he gave them what they needed. Palmer threw too many interceptions last season, but some of that had to do with a steep learning curve the entire offense faced, as well as an offensive line that wasn't altogether ready to mesh with Palmer's game. Palmer believes the offense is in a much better place to be effective. The Cards believe the offensive line has been upgraded. If Palmer's year last year – more than 4000 yards and 24 touchdowns, but 22 interceptions – was good enough for 10 wins, then maybe just a little improvement gets them into the postseason.
2. Who ends up as the right tackle?
Eric Winston played there last season, and now he is gone. The Cardinals came out of their offseason work with the position up in the air. Will it be Bobby Massie – finally – after he played his entire rookie season of 2012 and then sat all of 2013? Can Bradley Sowell maintain a starting job? Could there be a Winston-like late signing as camp gets underway? The bet remains, right now, with Massie. He's the fourth-round pick and the guy with the raw talent who should be ready. But, at least with this staff, Massie is facing a make-or-break season. The camp spotlight will be hot. (The Cards face a similar right guard battle, between 2013 fourth-rounder Earl Watford and incumbent Paul Fanaika.)
3. What is the exchange rate between Dansby/Washington and Minter/Foote?
The offseason inside linebacker issues have been well chronicled. Karlos Dansby left as a free agent, money-whipped in Cleveland. That came with a backup plan, though, and Kevin Minter was getting the role. Washington's year-long suspension was a blind side, however, and the Cards were left having to scramble some. Veteran Larry Foote steps in, unless it ends up being Lorenzo Alexander or Kenny Demens. In this case, the question is less about the who and more about the how. Dansby and Washington played a huge role in how the defense performed last season. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles figures to tweak his scheme somewhat with the change in personnel. But Minter and whoever else is in the lineup will under pressure too.
4. When – and how well – will Mathieu return?
Tyrann Mathieu's impressive rookie season ended with a punt return that went horribly wrong and a shredded knee. The starting safety/nickel corner is well on his way to returning to the field, but the end game remains a bit of a mystery. Arians said he personally isn't expecting Mathieu to play until after the team's Sept. 28 bye, but that might be more of a glass-is-half-empty approach that could very well be overly pessimistic. Mathieu will go into training camp limited at best. The rest of the timeline is unknown. The Cardinals will be cautious with him; there is no reason to do otherwise, especially with how deep the secondary has become. Even when he returns, will Mathieu have an RGIII-type of limit to his game? It's one thing to be healthy enough to play, another to be playing at the same level as when you left.
5. Is Veldheer the answer at left tackle?
Jared Veldheer will be the left tackle. The Cardinals spent a lot of money to make that so. There is little doubt internally – from the coaching staff to the front office to Palmer – that Veldheer indeed will be what is expected. As long as Veldheer stays healthy, which isn't a problem at this point, the Cards should have the blind-side protection they hoped to get when Levi Brown was first moved to the left side. The Cardinals haven't spent a ton in free agency, but they did so for Veldheer, for obvious reasons. Now it's about production.