Where they’re coming from
Their first division title in six years and a trip to the NFC Championship.
Arizona’s offense was insanely fun last year, finishing first in yards and second in points. The D was no slouch either, finishing top-ten in nearly every major category.
Where they’re going
The Super Bowl, or a hospital.
The Cards have looked like serious contenders for the past two years, but major injuries to Carson Palmer in 2014 and Tyrann Mathieu in 2015 gave this team excuses for falling short. No more. This year reeks of a “boom or bust” season.
Key offseason moves
Additions: G Evan Mathis, OLB Chandler Jones, DT Robert Nkemdiche (drafted)
Losses: T Bobby Massie, G Jonathan Cooper, S Rashad Johnson
What to watch for
How a new-look offensive line protects Palmer.
The O-line will be all-important this year. The Cards have finished sixth and fourth in sacks allowed over the past two seasons, but Palmer has been hit at an alarming rate: 95 and 103 QB hits over the last two seasons. The line will (likely) have three new starters on the right side (should Lyle Sendlein retire like many assume he will). The sack total might be unsustainably low, but Bruce Arians will be happy if Palmer takes fewer lumps overall, given the injury theme pervading this preview.
Fresh blood along the line could also help the run game up the middle, an area of great inefficiency last year.
Who to watch for
Chandler Jones, OLB
Despite boasting a top-tier defense, old man Dwight Freeney was the closest thing they had to a pass rushing threat. Jones comes to Arizona in the prime of his career, having notched double-digit sacks in his last two full seasons. Smoothing the transition is the fact Jones has experience operating as a linebacker out of a 3-4 defense, doing so with the Pats in 2014.
If Jones can live up to billing in the desert, that should open up opportunities for the underrated Calais Campbell and sophomore backer Markus Golden. Arizona’s ball-hawking secondary snared 19 interceptions last year. Imagine how high that number could get if the pass rush keeps opposing QB’s off their game?
What could go wrong
Carson Palmer’s psyche.
Outside of another major injury, the biggest subplot surrounding this team will be seeing how Palmer responds from his absolute meltdown in the NFC Championship. The 36-year-old QB had six of the team’s seven turnovers in a 49-15 beatdown at the hands of the Panthers. Don’t assume the journeyman will just be able to shake it off either. Some players can never bounce back from a brutal effort like that: ask Jake Delhomme.
An enigma since he stormed out of Cincy, this season should finally show us what Carson Palmer is. With Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Deone Bucannon, Patrick Peterson and more, this Arizona roster is talented enough to make the playoffs with even Drew Stanton at the helm. But if they’re going to return to the big stage; they need Palmer at his best.
Where they’ll end up
In the playoffs, at worst.
This team is as close to a guarantee for the postseason as there is, even in the constant flux of the NFC playoff picture. Head coach Bruce Arians has never coached a team to lower than a .600 win percentage, and that won’t change this year. I fully expect these Cards to be playing in that NFC title game once again. As for the outcome of that game? We’ll get there later.