NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

There was a lot Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer did well last season, his first in head coach Bruce Arians’ offense.

But there was still plenty he could work on, according to ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski.

Palmer
In the latest rendition of Jaworski’s quarterback big board Insider, Palmer dropped one spot to 20th because “he still made too many mistakes for a veteran quarterback.” Jaworski also wrote that “there were some games where I didn’t know where he was throwing the football.”

It seems to be a fair ranking for Palmer, who threw 22 interceptions compared to 24 touchdowns, when taking his entire body of work last season into consideration. Palmer was once considered an elite quarterback, but he’s not in that category anymore and that’s apparent in Jaws’ ranking. Palmer was rated behind quarterbacks such as Tony Romo, Andy Dalton, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford -- all quarterbacks Palmer can pass, in my opinion, with a better 2014 showing.

Jaworski criticized Palmer’s decision-making, which was under siege throughout the season, especially through the first eight games.

He struggled -- along with his teammates -- during the first half adjusting to Arians’ scheme. Palmer improved in the second half, along with his decision-making, throwing just eight interceptions to 14 touchdowns, and became a top-6 quarterback during that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

One stat that Jaws noted was Palmer’s nine third-down interceptions, second most in the NFL and tops in the NFC. Palmer also struggled on first down, throwing eight interceptions, the second most in the NFC. Both need to improve for Palmer to move up the board and for Arizona to move into the playoffs.

But for all his criticism of Palmer, Jaws also talked about Palmer’s strengths, writing Palmer “remains a tremendous anticipation thrower and has a really good feel for the passing game. He will throw it into man coverage and give his guys a chance.” One observation by Jaws stood out. He said even though Palmer made too many mistakes last season, he knew where to go with the football. The mistakes were a product of the learning curve with Arians’ offense. The kinks should have been ironed out during the offseason and the progress building off of 2013 is expected to start immediately. Training camp will be a true indication if either happened.

Jaws believes Palmer will improve in his second year under Arians. It’s a fair and expected assessment.
Examining the Arizona Cardinals' roster:

QUARTERBACK (3)

Carson Palmer
Drew Stanton
Logan Thomas

Arizona will carry two active quarterbacks -- Palmer and Stanton -- again this season. Thomas likely will spend all 16 games on the bench. He’s the future of the position for the Cardinals, so he’ll be given plenty of time to learn from the sideline but won’t see the field unless there’s an emergency.

RUNNING BACK (4)

Andre Ellington
Stepfan Taylor
Jonathan Dwyer
Robert Hughes

This will be Ellington’s year to star as the other three will be his backup singers. Taylor and Dwyer will battle it out for the second running back spot, while Hughes might end up being a bruising third-down and short-yardage back.

WIDE RECEIVER (5)

Larry Fitzgerald
Michael Floyd
Ted Ginn
John Brown
Walt Powell

The top three positions are set at receiver, and John Brown and his speed will see plenty of snaps. Walt Powell might be the odd man out when it comes to breaking the four-receiver sets.

OFFENSIVE LINE (8)

Bobby Massie
Earl Watford
Lyle Sendlein
Jonathan Cooper
Jared Veldheer
Bradley Sowell
Ted Larsen
Nate Potter

The center and left side of the line are pretty much set unless Cooper doesn’t return to camp at 100 percent. The right side might go through a shake-up or two throughout camp, especially as the rotating battle at right guard continues.

TIGHT END (4)

Jake Ballard
John Carlson
Troy Niklas (injured)
Rob Housler

The top three are almost guaranteed to make the roster, but Housler will have to show he can play within the framework of what coach Bruce Arians expects out of this new crop of receivers. In the long run, Arians’ biggest decision will be which two should start because any of them can fit that role.

DEFENSIVE LINE (7)

Calais Campbell
Darnell Dockett
Dan Williams
Kareem Martin
Frostee Rucker
Ed Stinson
Alameda Ta'amu (injured)

Why fix the defensive line if it’s not broken? Statistically speaking, the line was the best in the NFL last year, and adding Martin and Stinson will only make it better. Williams and Ta’amu will continue to rotate, and the two rookies will earn their stripes eventually.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (5)

John Abraham
Matt Shaughnessy
Sam Acho
Alex Okafor
Marcus Benard

This might be among the most hotly contested position in training camp because last year’s starters -- Abraham and Shaughnessy -- return, as do Acho and Okafor, who were injured in 2013. They’ll give the two vets a run for their money and Benard also has the skill to push for a job.

INSIDE LINEBACKER (4)

Larry Foote
Kevin Minter
Kenny Demens
Lorenzo Alexander

Besides right tackle, there isn’t another position with as many questions as inside linebacker. Any of the four can win the starting job, but all four might be used in a rotation.

CORNERBACK (6)

Patrick Peterson
Antonio Cromartie
Jerraud Powers
Justin Bethel
Bryan McCann
Teddy Williams

Peterson and Cromartie are the starters, and the rest will be on call in case something happens.

SAFETY (4)

Deone Bucannon
Rashad Johnson
Tony Jefferson
Tyrann Mathieu (injured)

Training camp will be beneficial for Bucannon and Jefferson, who’ll be fighting for a starting job. The depth at safety is loaded with talent, even while the Cardinals wait for Mathieu to return to the field.

PUNTER (1)

Dave Zastudil

Zastudil has been steady and strong the past few seasons, and this year shouldn’t be any different.

KICKER (1)

Jay Feely

Feely will have to fight for his job again during camp, but this time it’ll be throughout instead of just the final week like he did last year. Youth might end up trumping experience at kicker, but if Feely can be consistent through camp, he has shown he can help the Cardinals.

LONG-SNAPPER (1)

Mike Leach

Leach, who’s as consistent as they come in the Cardinals’ locker room, will be their long-snapper until he either says it’s time to retire or he can’t walk anymore. Whichever comes first.

Camp preview: Arizona Cardinals

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NFL Nation's Josh Weinfuss examines the three biggest issues facing the Arizona Cardinals heading into training camp.

Replacing Washington: Losing Daryl Washington to at least a yearlong suspension before training camp was the only positive that came out of the ordeal. It gave the Cardinals time to process the loss and figure out how to replace him. But that’s easier said than done. One starter is locked in: Kevin Minter. The other? Well, that’s up in the air and might take all seven weeks of training camp and preseason to determine. Arizona’s options aren’t just thin, they’re older as well, meaning the Cardinals don’t have another three-down linebacker who can seamlessly replace Washington. The battle next to Minter will begin with Larry Foote, Ernie Sims and Lorenzo Alexander. Foote, coach Bruce Arians said, can play as many as two downs. Sims didn’t impress during offseason work. And Alexander is still recovering from a Lisfranc injury. Don’t be surprised if the starter at inside linebacker for “Monday Night Football” in Week 1 isn’t running conditioning sprints on the first day of camp. Arizona doesn’t want just another body at inside linebacker –- although that’s what they might have to settle for -– they want to replace Washington’s speed, size and agility. And that likely won't might not happen.

Right tackle: Arizona thought it would end organized team activities and minicamp with a better idea -– if not a clear-cut idea -– of their starting right tackle. All that was determined? If combined, Bobby Massie and Bradley Sowell would be the team’s ideal tackle. Individually, however, neither blew coaches away. Both still will have a chance to win the job during training camp, although, like at inside linebacker, the starting right tackle might not be on the roster. Massie has an advantage in size and experience, having started at right tackle for the entire 2012 season. He was replaced last year by Eric Winston, who the Cardinals haven’t re-signed but is being considered for the job. Massie’s ability to retain the playbook has come into question throughout his stay in Arizona and was again at the forefront of the conversation during the offseason. Sowell has experience on both sides of the line, but more so as a left tackle, where he started for the final 12 games last season. His fundamentals were lacking at times throughout the offseason. It won’t be surprising if neither Massie nor Sowell start the season at right tackle.

Avoid a plateau: Around Week 8 last season, the proverbial light bulb went on for almost everyone in the Cardinals' locker room. It seemed like overnight, Arizona went from a confused offense that wasn’t progressing to a unit that begin firing on all cylinders for the final half of the season. It led the Cardinals to a 6-2 finish and a 10-6 overall record while missing a playoff bid in the final weekend of the season. In order to return to double-digit wins, Arizona needs to continue to build offensively. The Cardinals need to avoid a plateau and continue evolving offensively, especially with new pieces such as Ted Ginn, John Brown, John Carlson and Troy Niklas having large roles and returning running back Andre Ellington inheriting Arizona’s starting running back job after Rashard Mendenhall retired. Arians is an offensive genius, but with every season comes new players, which means there’ll always be a span of practice that’s dedicated to learning the offense in detail. Arizona just can’t let that stretch into the regular season. Any kinks need to be ironed out during camp, and the Cardinals need to finish training camp ready to roll.
Larry FitzgeraldDrew Hallowell/Getty Images
Score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23
Date: Feb. 1, 2009 Site: Raymond James Stadium

We have a winner and, in fitting fashion, it ran away from the pack.

The voters picked Larry Fitzgerald's 64-yard touchdown reception from Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XLIII as the Arizona Cardinals' most memorable play, and I applaud their selection. Fitzgerald's sprint down the middle of the field to the end zone is the play I consider the most memorable.

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There were definitely other plays that may have been more impactful toward a win, but Fitzgerald's fourth-quarter touchdown catch was significant to the Cardinals' franchise as well as the long-suffering fan base. It deserved to be voted as the team's most memorable play for a combination of reasons.

First, it's certainly the most exciting play in team history.

Super Bowl. Fourth quarter. Go-ahead touchdown. Less than three minutes left. It was the stuff legends, dreams and fairy tales are made of. Even though Arizona lost the game on another breathtaking play, Fitzgerald's run to glory -- his second touchdown of the game -- was picturesque. And for 2:05, it was going down in Cardinals, NFL and Super Bowl lore. Which leads us to the second reason it deserved to be named the Cards' most memorable play: It gave Arizona's fans a Super Bowl moment.

Every Super Bowl team has one. There's one play -- offensive, defensive, special teams, it doesn't matter -- that will be seared in the memory of that team's fans for life. For Cardinals fans, it's Fitzgerald's touchdown. All Cardinals fans remember where they were when Fitz caught the pass from Warner, how they slid to the edge of their seats as Fitz broke through the secondary and how they hit the ceiling with exhilaration as Fitzgerald's legs swallowed yards en route to pay dirt. Even though Arizona lost the Super Bowl less than three minutes later, Cards fans will forever eternalize that play.

And thirdly, Fitzgerald's catch deserved to be Arizona's most memorable play because of what it meant for the franchise.

For years -- even generations -- the Cardinals have been synonymous with losing. They've been mired in mediocrity. But when the Cards made their incredible run to the Super Bowl, all that was forgotten -- at least temporarily. And when Fitzgerald sprinted for that go-ahead touchdown, it looked like Arizona would join the echelon of Super Bowl champs. But being that close cast the team in a new light around the NFL. The Cardinals weren't just a team that lucked out and got to the Super Bowl, as other teams have been labeled in the past. They made a legitimate run at the Vince Lombardi Trophy, one that was highlighted by Fitzgerald's touchdown.
The Arizona Cardinals' biggest key to success for the next three seasons can be summed up in one word: offense.

How the Cardinals can adapt and adjust on the offensive side of the ball will determine whether they continue to build on the foundation that coach Bruce Arians laid in 2013 or whether they regress back to the state of mediocrity.

The first step to being successful over the next three seasons is finding a long-term solution at quarterback. Current starter Carson Palmer is entering the final year of his contract because his third season voids if he remains on the roster five days after the Super Bowl. A young, steady, productive quarterback is needed to take over this team, and the question then becomes is Logan Thomas that guy? The Cardinals also need to solidify the right side of the offensive line, like they did the left side by signing tackle Jared Veldheer and drafting guard Jonathan Cooper.

Stability up front can make the offense run despite rough conditions behind it. In three years, the likes of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd might not be wearing Cardinal red anymore. Fitzgerald is coming up on the end of his career in the next few years, and Floyd might be a free agent in the next two. The Cardinals will need to make Floyd their next No. 1 receiver and build around him to remain successful.

Running back and tight end are the two positions that are young and feature players poised to be around for the next few seasons, but, in order for the Cards to be successful through 2016, the rest of the offense needs to be stabilized and shored up.
Tim HightowerAP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. In the previous two days we featured Kurt Warner's 64-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald during a loss in Super Bowl XLIII and Karlos Dansby's fumble return for a touchdown in overtime of a wild-card game against Green Bay in the 2009 season. Please vote for your choice as the Cardinals' most memorable play.

Score: Cardinals 32, Eagles 25
Date: Jan. 18, 2009 Site: University of Phoenix Stadium

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Sometimes a memorable play doesn't include a touchdown, sack or interception. Sometimes it's one of those plays that lets fans breathe for a second, move away from the edge of their seat and know their team lived to see another down.

When Tim Hightower took a handoff from Kurt Warner on fourth-and-1 on the Philadelphia 49 with 7 minutes, 57 seconds left in the NFC Championship Game of the 2008 season, there wasn't a back flush against a seat.

Everyone knew if the Eagles regained possession they could milk the clock, making it incredibly tough for the Cardinals to reach their first Super Bowl in franchise history. Everyone knew there could be bigger plays, but at that moment this was the play that could define the season. When Hightower ran right and was pushed out of bounds after gaining 6 yards -- and one of the most important first downs in franchise history -- everyone exhaled. There were still 43 yards to go to overtake the Eagles, but at least there was hope.

That drive wasn't over. There was still a third down to be converted. But that fourth-down run by Hightower kept the hopes and dreams of an entire organization alive, and it eventually paid off when Arizona overtook the Eagles with a touchdown pass from Warner to Hightower with just under three minutes left. That pass was memorable as well, but it wouldn't have been possible without Hightower getting those 6 yards.

 Patrick Peterson AP Photo/Rick Scuteri Patrick Peterson's personality is what national advertisers are looking for.
Patrick Peterson walked around the dining room at Donovan’s Steak and Chop House in early June shaking hands and chatting up anyone and everyone.

It was the first “Celebs and Steaks” event for Peterson’s Foundation for Success, and Peterson looked like a seasoned vet. These events have become common for players with foundations. They, along with their teammates, serve dinner to a packed house of fans, supporters and socialites who donate to their respective foundation.

But what struck me was how Peterson looked as comfortable wearing a corporate uniform -- suit and tie -- as he does in his Arizona Cardinals No. 21. He covered as much ground that night as he does protecting the Cardinals’ secondary at University of Phoenix Stadium, smiling and keeping eye contact with everyone who wanted a moment with the three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro.

This is the norm for the 23-year-old Peterson.

While Peterson is a few weeks away from starting his fourth season in the NFL, he already has endorsement deals with Nike, Pepsi, Eastbay, Tide, T-Mobile, Express, GoPro, Mars candy company and GMC. He has long-term deals with Nike and Eastbay and some one-time agreements or social media hits. Regardless of the length of the deals, Peterson is becoming a face of national companies, whether it's wearing their shoes or appearing on billboards or in commercials. It's something he's always wanted to do.

“Watching Allen Iverson -- he’s even a Reebok guy -- watching Kobe Bryant when he was with adidas, watching those guys, I was like that’s something I want to do if I was able and fortunate enough to make it to the next level to have a strong company like one of those companies backing me up and saying this guy reps our company and he wears it with great pride and dignity,” Peterson said. “And once I actually figured out how the sponsorships work and how endorsements actually work, I said this is definitely something I can get acquainted with pretty quick.”

And he’s been able to do it from one of the smallest NFL markets, playing a position that isn’t highly marketed.

So how has Peterson been able to push his way into the national spotlight?

“That’s easy,” said Denise White, the CEO of EAG Sports Management, which handles some of Peterson’s public relations and marketing. “It’s his personality. He’s like a mom and apple pie guy. He doesn’t come with any drama. He’s a good-looking kid. Very intelligent. Very down to earth. Very old soul. So that’s attractive to advertisers. You want a good-looking guy who can speak well [to] hawk your product and whatever it may be, and he’s a good person.

“He’s a good guy. He knows what to do. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong. He’s not the guy that’s going to ever get in trouble or have any issues to where we have to be careful of that. And people generally enjoy him. He’s fun to be around. He’s nice. And more importantly, he’s a great athlete.”

Being a great athlete will only get Peterson so far. Had Arizona sneaked into the playoffs at 10-6 last season, Peterson likely would have had more eyes on him in the wild-card game than any of his previous NFL games, with the possible exception of “Monday Night Football” and a Thursday night game in 2012. More eyes means more exposure, which leads to increased popularity.

On the field, Peterson is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, if not the best. He is well-known to NFL insiders and fanatics. But when it comes to the general fan base, Peterson isn't yet a household name.

Part of that is Peterson plays for the Cardinals. Another part is his quiet personality. He's the opposite of Seattle’s Richard Sherman, who has landed national deals with Campbell’s and Microsoft, according to Forbes Magazine. Peterson isn’t drawing attention to himself -- a la Sherman -- which could be good and bad when it comes to landing endorsements.

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesIf the Cardinals win, Peterson can expect to get some more attention on the advertising stage.
Another one of Peterson’s battles to become a major endorser is the fact that he plays defense. It’s rare for a defensive player to get national ad campaigns and even tougher for them to become full-blown Madison Avenue darlings. There have been a couple of defensive stars who have come close recently, but both are now retired: Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher. Current Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews has endorsed Campbell’s Chunky Soup.

According to Forbes’ most recent list of the highest-paid athletes in the world, six of them were defensive football players. Of those, none made more than $800,000 (Darrelle Revis) in endorsements last year.

“At the end of the day, people are trying to get impressions,” said Alex Guerrero, president of Elite Sports Society, which handles some of Peterson’s marketing. “So how many times is the quarterback on TV? Every single play there’s a quarterback on TV, except for punts and kicks.”

For the Cardinals, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has become not just the face of the franchise but one of the faces of the NFL, earning endorsements along the way. He has been a spokesman for the University of Phoenix and has been plastered all over Nike’s football advertising, among others.

When a potential endorser looks at the Cardinals, it’s easy to see why Fitzgerald is their first choice. Peterson has used the opportunity to learn from Fitzgerald about how to land major deals and how to handle himself in the spotlight, White said.

While they’re both stars in their own right, Peterson and Fitzgerald attract different audiences because of their age, position and interests. Peterson is in his early 20s, while Fitzgerald is in his early 30s. Peterson loves cars, while Fitzgerald loves photography.

“I think people are just enamored as to what he is,” Guerrero said of Peterson. “His ceiling is huge. At the end of the day, his ceiling is so high because he can touch on every demographic. That hungry kid that wants to be a baller. That educated guy that’s going to go to Cal Berkeley or Penn State or Boston College, they’ll like him. Or the guy that wants to be able to say, ‘I made it from Florida and I left as a junior.’ That’s really what people are starting to notice, and that’s why his marketing is starting to explode.”

Said Peterson: “I think it’s cool. Just being a clean-cut guy. Just being me. Just being me every day. Chilling. Playing golf. Working out. Hanging out with my wife. That’s basically me. I’m just being Patrick Peterson, laid-back.”
Karlos DansbyGene Lower/Getty Images
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This is one of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in team history. Previously, we featured Kurt Warner’s 64-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald during a loss in Super Bowl XLIII, and we will feature Tim Hightower’s fourth-down run in the NFC Championship Game of the 2008 season against Philadelphia. Please vote for your choice as the Cardinals’ most memorable play.

Score: Cardinals 51, Packers 45 OT
Date: Jan. 10, 2010 Site: University of Phoenix Stadium

It was Arizona’s first playoff game since Super Bowl XLIII, and the expectations were high.

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About 11 months earlier, the Cardinals made franchise history by playing in their first Super Bowl, and with mostly the same team returning, another run in the playoffs wasn't just expected, it seemed inevitable.

But standing in their way in the wild-card round of the 2009 playoffs were the Green Bay Packers, who were gearing up for a Super Bowl run of their own. In what was a memorable game that included overtime and nearly 100 points, the best play -- and one of the most memorable in franchise history -- was the final one of the game.

When Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked by defensive back Michael Adams on third-and-6 from the Green Bay 24, the ball took a fortunate bounce right into linebacker Karlos Dansby's waiting hands. With nothing but green grass in front of him, Dansby returned the fumble 17 yards for the winning touchdown.

The play sent the Cardinals into the divisional round of the playoffs, where they eventually lost, but it showed the franchise wasn't just a one-hit wonder. This was a team that could win a big playoff game. Teams -- look at the Packers, for example -- win close playoff games and then fall later. But at least the Cardinals were able to get out of the first round after their Super Bowl season.

Arizona fans still remember where they were for Dansby’s fumble return because it was a moment that solidified the future of the franchise -- even if the franchise took a few steps back in future years.

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Larry FitzgeraldDrew Hallowell/Getty Images
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This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. In the next two days we'll feature Karlos Dansby's fumble return for a touchdown in overtime of the wild-card game against Green Bay in the 2009 season and Tim Hightower's fourth-down run in the NFC Championship Game against Philadelphia in the 2008 season. Please vote for your choice as the Cardinals' most memorable play.

Score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23
Date: Feb. 1, 2009 Site: Raymond James Stadium

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Is there a better storybook ending than the star receiver outrunning the entire defense for a winning touchdown in the Super Bowl? Didn't think so.

For just about two minutes late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII, it looked like the Cardinals had written the type of fairy tale every quarterback and wide receiver dream about. On second-and-10 from the Cardinals 36, Kurt Warner hit Larry Fitzgerald in stride down just before midfield. Fitz took care of the rest, outrunning the Steelers' defense for a touchdown with 2:47 left in the fourth quarter. That score gave Arizona a 23-20 lead and went down in NFL history.

Even though the Steelers stole Super Bowl glory from Arizona with less than a minute to go, that pass from Warner to Fitzgerald is one of the most memorable in team history because not only was it exciting, but it put the Cardinals on the cusp of entering an elite tier of teams. It gave a franchise hope for its first Super Bowl title in dramatic fashion. It solidified their place as a team that could compete for a world championship. For 2:02 the Cardinals were in position to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

While the pass didn't lead Arizona to a victory, it was still a defining moment in the franchise's history because of how close it brought the Cardinals to that win.

Sometimes bigger is better. At least when it comes to tight ends.

One priority for the Arizona Cardinals during the offseason was to improve their tight end room. Coach Bruce Arians wanted tight ends that fit his mold -- guys who are bigger, stronger, faster and love to block. Midway through last season, Arizona began to transition its tight end unit by signing 6-foot-6, 275-pound Jake Ballard. John Carlson, who's 6-5, 248, was added during the early part of this year's free agency and Troy Niklas -- 6-6, 270 -- was drafted in May.

Housler
Housler
Arians wanted his tight ends to be bigger. He got what he wanted.

"That's always been my philosophy," Arians said. "I don't want a guy that's really a wide receiver and you're only hope to run the football is if they put a nickel in there and he can block him and in base defense, not going to block anybody. My experience (is) it's always been a detriment rather than guys who can do both."

Arians has one of those tight ends that's more of a wide receiver than a bruising blocker off the line.

Rob Housler, who's entering his fourth season with the Cards, has a basketball player's body. He can be quick in the open field and looks as comfortable as most wideouts running a route off the line. But that's not what Arians wants.

He wants to see his tight ends be a combination of the old school definition of the position combined with a sprinkle of new school. And that's why Ballard and Niklas have coaches giddy with excitement. They're both big men who enjoy contact at the line of scrimmage yet they're both athletic enough to run routes, catch tough passes and turn up field to make plays. Ballard showed what he's capable of in eight games last season, but Niklas was sidelined for most of the offseason while recovering from sports hernia surgery before suffering a broken hand.

Carlson
But it's Carlson who's impressed the most during organized team activities and minicamp.

"John has done a really, really good job," Arians said. "First off, he's extremely bright. He picked up the system extremely quick. He plays full speed all the time and has got outstanding hands. His issue in the past ... he's not an overwhelming blocker but he's more than adequate."

Each new addition to the tight end room brought more competition. While some players wilt at the first sign of having to play for their job, Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer said that hasn't happened yet with the Cards.

"It's been phenomenal to have John here for a number of (reasons)," Palmer said. "Mainly, he's really pushed that tight end group. He's really brought the best out of Robby. Bringing competition to that spot has really helped Robby improve."

While Carlson, Ballard and Niklas look similar in stature, Palmer said each brings a different asset to the field.

"We have three different guys with three different strengths -- four guys really (including Housler)," Palmer said. "We all kinda feed off of each other. There's one guy that's fast. There's one guy that's big and powerful. There's one guy that kinda does it all. I think that's what Coach Arians kinda envisioned in that position -- not a bunch of the same guys but a bunch of different guys."
He's a Pro Bowler.

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesCornerback Patrick Peterson could spend more time studying the game so he doesn't have to rely on his athletic ability so much, says coach Bruce Arians.
He's an All-Pro.

He plays offense, defense and special teams.

Seemingly, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson can do it all.

So, what -- if anything -- can Peterson do better? Apparently, more than you think.

Coach Bruce Arians was posed with the question during Cardinals' minicamp last month.

"Play off-coverage a little bit better, some of those things where [he] leans on athleticism; study the game, which he does a pretty good job of -- when you're as good as him, sometimes it's easy to rely on your athletic ability; and get your hands on more balls," Arians said.

That was that. Arians answered a question many who watch Peterson from the gray and red seats of University of Phoenix Stadium never thought there was a sufficient answer to. But there's always something a player can improve on, especially when a coach is asked.

One of the few criticisms of Peterson is that he relies on his athleticism more than his fundamentals, something Arians has obviously taken note. Peterson is quick, fast and strong, and can make up for mistakes in fundamentals with all of the above. Even when Arians mentioned Peterson can always get better at studying the game -- an area Peterson has improved in throughout his career -- Arians still refers to Peterson's reliance on his athleticism. And the final improvement Arians would like to see is a result of that athleticism, getting his hands on more footballs. Peterson had three interceptions and no fumble recoveries last season.

The question was a product of the discussion about what Peterson can -- and can't -- do on the field compared to other cornerbacks. So-called experts and pundits have judged Peterson and Arians doesn't agree with them.

"Those people [don't] know a damn thing about our defense and what we're asking him to do," Arians said. "I have to laugh when I see all these comparisons. Guys in defenses [are] doing different things and they have no clue what the coach is asking, whether he's doing the right thing or wrong thing and all of a sudden I see a grade. I don't know what that plus-three or plus-four s--- means."

Regardless of his stature and his resume, Peterson has room to grow and Arians won't let him forget about it.
When it comes to nicknames for secondaries in the NFC West, one team seems to own the market.

Everyone knows Seattle’s defensive backfield as the "Legion of Boom." And if you don’t know, Richard Sherman will be happy to tell you all about it. But there’s another secondary in the West that’s garnering some attention this offseason and has already been given a nickname by its faithful fans.

Seattle's "Legion of Boom" meet Arizona's "No Fly Zone."

[+] EnlargeDeone Bucannon
Norm Hall/Getty ImagesThe Cardinals drafted Deone Bucannon into an already-talented secondary.
"No Fly Zone" meet the "Legion of Boom."

In what’s becoming one of the NFL’s most intriguing rivalries -- Arizona’s defensive backs vs. Seattle’s -- there’s a distinct difference between the two teams. Seattle’s secondary is established, having been together for a few years. They're more successful, having won a Super Bowl together. Arizona’s secondary is younger and newer, the majority having been added to the team in the last two seasons.

But how good is Arizona’s secondary after adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie in free agency and drafting safety Deone Bucannon to a defensive backfield that already featured cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Tyrann Mathieu?

"I think there is no ceiling," Peterson said. "I think the sky’s the limit for us. By adding Cromartie, I thought that was a huge pickup. But now adding Bucannon I think is a much better pickup because I think it now puts the secondary, as a whole, in a much better position than we have been in the years since I’ve been here.

"I think it definitely well-rounds us because now that you have two shutdown corners on the outside, a free safety in Tyrann that can roam the field and make plays like a Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed and things like that, and now you got a hard-hitting safety that will come down and kinda be that ninth guy in the box and stop the run and make teams pretty much have a fear of running those drag routes like (Kam) Chancellor out in Seattle."

Peterson said that is what made Seattle so good: They have a talented player at every position in the secondary. With Seattle parting ways with cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond, despite keeping Byron Maxwell, the Cardinals may be inching closer to having as talented of a secondary as the defending champs.

Drafting Bucannon was a large part of that, Peterson said, but so is the depth built by adding a couple of starters.

"It definitely closes the gap," he said. "It closed the gap tremendously now that we can do a variety of different things because at the end of the day we still have (cornerback) Jerraud Powers, who we know can cover real well. Obviously, he had some tough breaks last year but we still have him on the roster to go inside while Tyrann is out. He’s a huge asset to this defense, as well. He’s a guy that can play outside, inside, he’ll probably be in a couple safety packages.

"There’s going to be a couple different things that we can do with the guys on the roster."
The difference between Cardinals tight end Rob Housler finding a significant role on this year's team and him being just a situational piece in Bruce Arians' offense is Housler being comfortable with the head coach.

Housler said this offseason -- Arians' second -- felt different than 2013.

Housler
Housler
"It's my second minicamp with Bruce," Housler said. "It definitely felt like my second minicamp with Bruce because I felt a lot more familiar with the system and being able to play fast, so that's what I'm going to take away from this minicamp."

There may not be another player who had as much to prove during the offseason and has as much to lose during training camp. He underachieved last season, partly because Housler was hampered by a high ankle sprain for the first month of the season and partly because he's not a blocking tight end, the kind Arians prefers.

During the offseason, the Cardinals showed their dissatisfaction with Housler, signing John Carlson and drafting Troy Niklas. Including Jake Ballard, who was signed midway through last season, the Cardinals have three tight ends who weren't on the roster in Week 1 of 2013.

Housler, who caught 39 passes for 454 yards and his first career touchdown, said he doesn't feel any pressure. But, he added, it's clear he has turn his game up a notch.

"It's definitely one of those things where the reps go down. The reps are shared and so you kinda see the fact that you have to be precise in everything you do," Housler said. "And it's actually easier this year to be precise in what I'm doing because I'm familiar with it. You can kinda see both ends of the spectrum and for me it provided a good perspective on everything."

Housler was drafted by the previous regime in Arizona, which saw him as a tight end in the mold of San Francisco's Vernon Davis, St. Louis' Jared Cook and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham -- the basketball-player body who can run routes like a receiver. There'll be a small role for that type of player in Arians' roster, but it's not the kind of tight end Arians covets.

At 26, Housler is the veteran of the group when it comes to playing under Arians. And he has competition for the first time in a few years. Housler's place on the roster isn't guaranteed, especially with a month of training camp and four preseason games looming. The three other tight ends -- Calrson, Ballard and Niklas -- were all hand-picked by Arians and cut from the cloth he likes.

But Housler won't let that intimidate him. He's grown physically and mentally every year since he was drafted in 2011 and that won't stop. This year, he just has to fight a little harder for his job.

"There's always competition in a room," Housler said. "I mean that in the sense of, you're competing against every tight end in the league. You always want to compete. You always want to be the best. We are in a very competitive division as far as tight ends go. For me, we brought in some really good guys.

"But, so far I like the competition. It's also a chance to be in their shoes where I was last year -- where they were learning the system for the first time. I was able to help them out as much as I could."
Jonathan Cooper's stats may say he's a rookie. His experience may show he's a rookie. But don't call Jonathan Cooper a rookie.

Cooper, who missed all of his rookie season with a broken leg suffered in the Arizona Cardinals' third preseason game, doesn't want the label.

"I don't care what anybody says, I don't feel like a rookie," Cooper said. "I know I missed the season or whatever. They say everybody's a rookie until three games into the season, so from that standpoint I feel like I'm a rookie but beyond that, no sir."

Jonathan Cooper
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Cooper missed his entire rookie season with a leg injury suffered during the preseason.
Cooper has been marching toward his non-rookie rookie season with a veteran's fury since he went down against the San Diego Chargers last August during a preseason game at University of Phoenix Stadium. He's not back to being the same Cooper the Cardinals drafted, but he's as close as he's been.

The seventh overall pick a year ago couldn't quantitatively say how close he is to being 100 percent, but Cooper believes he'll be at full strength come July 26 when Arizona holds its first training camp practice.

"I think I have progressed quite a bit but not quite game ready," Cooper said. "I've come out here and I've done everything they've asked me to do rehab wise and lifting wise and on the field to the best of my ability.

"But my performance isn't quite where it needs to be for Game 1."

There's still room for improvement physically, Cooper said. There's still a lot of rust to knock off his 6-foot-2, 312-pound frame. But the majority of his rehab has come above the shoulders. He's had to grow comfortable again leaning on defensive linemen and has tried to keep the notion that he won't re-injure the leg at the forefront of his thoughts.

"I remember when I wasn't able to walk," Cooper said. "Just being able to run around and I remember being nervous about leaning on these defensive linemen. I've been able to do it, day-by-day proving to myself that I'll be fine."

Cooper's progress has been noticed by the Cardinals, but they are still aware of the road ahead of him.

"Coop's still got a ways to go," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "His recovery is not total yet and it's obvious. He's not the athlete that he was last year at this time. I wouldn't expect him to be. He still has plenty of time to get there. When you really look back, he had 15 practices and two games as a Cardinal. He is a first-round draft choice but he's far from a finished product."

For the next five weeks, Cooper will try to become that finished product. He'll balance resting his body for the long haul of the season with rehabbing his leg back to 100 percent.

Off the field and in the classroom, Cooper's not a rookie. On the field, however, he's a year behind but he's working as hard as any first-year player in the league to get back to where he was and where he should be.

"Rehabbing -- that's pretty much what I got on my agenda," Cooper said. "(I'll) be studying all that but just give my body a little bit of a break, otherwise just lifting and rehabbing."
Kevin MinterMatt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsThe Cardinals are counting on second-year LB Kevin Minter to make the calls on defense.
John Abraham is waiting for the day when Kevin Minter needs to tell him to shut up.

It's bound to happen at some point during the 2014 season if Minter evolves into the type of inside linebacker Arizona has faith he will become. It's bound to happen in the heat of battle, when the game is on the line and Minter will need to relay a critical play to the 10 other Cardinals in the huddle. It's bound to be a Pro Bowler at the other end of the direction.

“It's a little tough,” Abraham said.

If it happens, it will be a defining moment for Minter, who is slated to fill the void left by Karlos Dansby's departure to Cleveland. In his second year in the NFL, Minter will be charged with being the quarterback of the defense, the man who relays plays and instructions from defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to the rest of the defense.

It's a daunting task for a 23-year-old to look Patrick Peterson, Darnell Dockett or Calais Campbell in the eye and be the authority. But Minter is looking forward to it.

“It's like being in college all over again,” he said. “Doing all the adjustments, making all the calls and stuff like that, and being the guy that they depend on to run the show. It's cool. It's pretty humbling. It's nice.”

Minter's professional career has started eerily similar to his collegiate one.

He was lost his first year at LSU, trying to grasp the changes from high school football to college -- similar to his rookie NFL season. As a sophomore, Minter was given responsibility on defense and he blossomed.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said he talked to coaches at LSU and hopes Minter's second year in the NFL ends up like his sophomore year at LSU.

“You're the signal-caller. You're the leader of the defense,” Arians said. “Big shoes to fill. Karlos was very dynamic in what he did last year. Todd schemed very well for him, like he will for Kevin and whoever else who's in there.”

Dansby's leadership is what the Cardinals will miss most, Abraham said.

“Not even his physical attributes to the games, not even his numbers,” he said. “Just his leadership. How he talks. How he keeps a team together … starting in Arizona, leaving and coming back.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Dansby
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellKarlos Dansby was the leader of the Cardinals defense last season, but he signed with Cleveland as a free agent.
“We're definitely going to miss his numbers, but having his leadership and having him talk to the younger guys like that is going to probably be the biggest thing we're going to miss.”

Minter, who played just one defensive snap last season, was one of those younger guys whom Dansby mentored. He watched Dansby daily and learned how to work hard, make himself better and put the team first.

“That's a great quality for me to take from him,” Minter said. “If I'm able to do that same thing for this team, we can be just as good or even better than last year.

“I took [last] year as a learning year. The guy in front of me was amazing. He had the best year a damn linebacker can have. I had to pay attention. A guy like that, he came every day ready to work. I just hope I can bring that to the table as well.”

Minter will need to rely on those lessons early and often when Arizona reports to training camp. The team lost Daryl Washington, whom Minter would have leaned on for support in 2014, when he was suspended for a year for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, leaving Minter as the only stable piece of Arizona's inside linebacker corps.

But Abraham, who is entering his 15th season, was quick to say Minter won't be the next Dansby.

He's too young.

“He ain't gonna be Karlos at all,” Abraham said. “You can't even compare the two. He's going to be a good leader, but also he's young and all the other guys are kinda older than him. Not saying he's scared, but he's got to get used to being that guy 'cause you're the middle guy. You got to get used to telling people what to do, and I don't think he's ready for that just yet. I can see him getting into it. I can definitely see him being one of those kind of pros.

“Right now, he just got to work into it, just get comfortable, like telling guys, 'Get your ass over there. Go over there.' But right now, I don't think he's comfortable with that yet. Like Karlos came in and he was already 30-something. Everybody knew him here. He had the clout already.”

Minter doesn't have the clout of a 10-year vet, but he does have the support from the coaching staff -- for now at least. It's not easy for guys to develop into the voice of a defense, especially one that's as talented and stout as the Cardinals'. But Minter doesn't have time to let it happen naturally. He needs to step in this season and have his voice ready.

“Sometimes it's easy for some guys to; sometimes it's not,” Abraham said. “For me, when I first got here, I was real quiet, but now I'm comfortable. I can pretty much go anywhere and talk to anyone.

“I stepped back and observe before I start to talk to some people. When I say something, I want you to know, ‘Yeah, he backed it up.'”

Minter spent a year observing. Now it's his time to back it up.

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