Clockwise from top left: QB Carson Palmer, running back David Johnson, center A.Q. Shipley and right tackle D.J. Humphries.
Expectations are high, and the Cardinals know it.
Training camp starts in about a week and the Cards begin as one of the teams that should be in the mix for a Super Bowl berth. Their season one year ago ended poorly, a blowout loss in Carolina in the NFC Championship game, but the team returns mainly intact. Assuming key players remain healthy, there is no reason to think they can't live up to the hype.
That doesn't mean there aren't a handful of questions facing Bruce Arians' team as training camp begins:
Q: Can Carson Palmer do it again?
Quarterback Carson Palmer was simply magnificent in 2015. No, his NFC Championship performance wasn't one to cherish. It was ugly, in fact. But the rest of the season was excellent, worthy of his being in the MVP conversation. With 4,671 yards, 35 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions, the Cardinals' offense hummed all season. With all his receivers back and a running game that should be even better than it was last year, Palmer – assuming he stays healthy – really has no reason not to be able to recreate a special season. At his age, it's fair to wonder when his skills could start to decline, but he hasn't seemed to reach that point yet. * *
Q: Who is the starting center?
Seems to me this was a question last year at this time as well. Later, we found out the Cardinals were willing to bring back Lyle Sendlein. This year, the team drafted Evan Boehm in the fourth round, and there was an immediate assumption Boehm would be able to jump into the lineup by the time the season began. Maybe that could happen, but for now, A.Q. Shipley – who couldn't grab hold of the job last year, which is why Sendlein was brought in – has another chance and doesn't want to let it go. Boehm, meanwhile, still has a lot to learn about the NFL game. There is also an outside chance Earl Watford could grab the job. As for signing someone else, it seems unlikely. Especially since, if the Cards were to sign an offensive linemen, right tackle seems like the place …
Q: Will D.J. Humphries become the right tackle?
The 2015 first-round draft pick has said all the right things and is the guy who the Cardinals want to win the starting right tackle job. But there is no guarantee Humphries will be that guy. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Cards take a look at Humphries early in camp and see if there is a need for another veteran addition (unless they just decide to bring one in at the outset of camp, a la Eric Winston in 2013). They want Humphries to win the job. Of that there is little question. But they won't just give him the job, either.
Q: How much will David Johnson carry the offense?
The Cardinals, right now, have three effective NFL running backs in David Johnson, Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington. It took injuries to the latter two to give David Johnson his first chance at starting in the NFL. But Johnson – after 13 rookie touchdowns and showing he can both run and catch the ball with the best of them – is the unquestioned top dog now. He will be the one starting, as a player whom both GM Steve Keim and Arians believe has a chance to become one of the best in the NFL. Chris Johnson and Ellington (as long as everyone stays healthy) will have certain roles too. The question is how much will the Cards lean on David Johnson? Hard to imagine it won't be quite a bit.
Q: How important will keeping every single skill player be?
Last season, 14 different players scored an offensive touchdown for the Cardinals. As a team , the Cards rushed for 1,917 yards and made 353 receptions for an addition 4,775 yards – and every single catch, yard and touchdown remain on the roster. It's nearly unprecedented to have all that production return, and underscores the stability Palmer has at his disposal on offense. Yes, there are changes on the offensive line, and protecting Palmer remains a hugely important factor in how the Cardinals do offensively. But with all those players back, understanding Arians' offense, it's a huge advantage