Among the questions for the Cardinals going into camp (clockwise from top left): The return to health of Carson Palmer, the expectations of the offensive line, a new defensive coordinator in James Bettcher, and the running game led by Andre Ellington.
In a week or so, the Cardinals start training camp. Optimism abounds. After two seasons of double-digit wins, Bruce Arians has his guys believing they can be in the hunt for a Super Bowl. Of course, that kind of thing needs some luck too – you can't have your starting quarterback only play six games.
Health isn't an issue going into the next month at University of Phoenix Stadium. Yes, Carson Palmer is still on the comeback trail, but he's in a good place with his knee. The Cardinals think they have the deepest roster they've ever had, and a trade or two before the preseason ends could happen instead of the Cards just slicing off decent players to reach the 53-man roster.
That doesn't mean there aren't questions to be answered – or at least, attempted to be answered – before the team plays games that count.
Q. After another ACL repair, what kind of quarterback can Carson Palmer be?
Palmer tore his left knee ligaments in early November, and had surgery by mid-November. Once, that would have derailed a player for much longer than Palmer was sidelined. He returned for OTAs and minicamp and even participated in 11-on-11. He says he's not even thinking about the injury anymore. We'll see how quickly Palmer plays in a game, but even in camp practice there isn't hitting the quarterback (although, unlike the summer work, there is contact all around him and a higher chance of a wayward body falling by his legs.) Palmer's play this season will impact the Cards more than any other single player. The Cards need him healthy, and now is the time to find out how healthy he really is.
Q. How will the defense and new coordinator James Bettcher mesh?
This process has already started. Let's face it, the fact Bettcher has already been on staff for two years with some relationship with all the holdover defenders shouldn't make this much of a transition. That's what the offseason meetings were for. The biggest question about Bettcher now is one of playcalling and in-game adjustments, and that's hard to fully analyze until the regular season begins. Bettcher says the scheme is a "Cardinal defense," not his defense. The players all profess their belief in Bettcher and, more importantly, themselves.
Q: Just how will the upgraded offensive line perform in pads?
The big free-agent signee? Left guard Mike Iupati. That follows the big addition in 2014 free agency, left tackle Jared Veldheer. The first-round draft pick in April was a tackle, D.J. Humphries, although right now he's behind Bobby Massie on the depth chart and could stay there. The Cardinals are bullish on the prospects of 2013 No. 1 pick Jonathan Cooper – finally – being ready to settle in as an effective starter. Earl Watford is trying to stick his nose in the mix too. General Manager Steve Keim has been trying to build up this unit since he took over. A.Q. Shipley and Ted Larsen will battle at center (and Lyle Sendlein remains out there without a job too, if the center play isn't what the Cards might want) and overall, the Cards should have a very solid line. But they have yet to hit anyone, and that, at the core, is what an offensive line is all about.
Q: Can a healthy Andre Ellington – and David Johnson -- spark the run game?
This starts with the offensive line, as previously noted, but the Cardinals need to run the ball better than they did in 2014, when Jonathan Dwyer was dumped two games into the season after trouble with the law. Ellington played hurt before the season even started. The Cards rushed for 82 yards a game in 2014, next-to-last in the league. Some of that is quarterback-related – there was no fear of the Cards passing late in the season, so it was easy to gear up against the run – but there needs to be improvement. Ellington looked good in the offseason, but he did last year too. It was the foot injury he suffered late in the preseason that set him back. Johnson remains a likely choice as the next back after Ellington, given his size and similar skill-set to Ellington – meaning the offense doesn't have to change much when he's in the game.
Q: Who can the Cardinals count on at tight end?
John Carlson's retirement was a surprise, although the Cardinals did draft Troy Niklas in the second round in 2014 to be the No. 1 tight end of the future. First, though, Niklas has to stay healthy and stay on the field, something he has been unable to do in his short career. The Cards need him to blossom. Darren Fells right now is the top tight end. While he is a year removed from the practice squad and not much longer than that coming off a pro basketball career overseas, he has shown solid progress. The wild card may be Ifeanyi Momah, the converted receiver who can catch but must prove he can block. Maybe the biggest camp question about tight end is if/when the Cardinals sign a veteran; former Bengal Jermaine Gresham was recently brought in for a visit, and the team has reportedly shown interest in former Redskin Chris Cooley.