This article is part of our Team Previews series.
Since GM Steve Keim, coach Bruce Arians and QB Carson Palmer joined forces before the 2013 season, the Cardinals have improved in the win column in each ensuing campaign, culminating in a 13-3 record last year. However, a 49-15 blowout loss in the NFC championship game took some shine off the trio's success.
THREE KEY STORY LINES
PALMER POISED TO BRUSH OFF DISAPPOINTMENT
Carson Palmer is an extension of brash coach Bruce Arians on the field, where the deep ball isn't merely a gimmick but a weekly staple. Leading the NFL in highest average depth of target (11.3 yards) last season, per Pro Football Focus, Palmer wouldn't have been blamed for an inferior completion percentage, yet he recorded a respectable mark of 63.7. All of the above fueled an MVP-worthy campaign exhibited by career bests in passing yards (4,671) and TDs (35). It was all for naught, though. Chinks in the armor appeared upon losing steady pass protector Chris Johnson to a broken tibia in Week 12, as Palmer was sacked 14 times in seven games thereafter (versus 17 in the first 11 contests). Adding injury to insult was a dislocated right index finger in Week 15, after which Palmer posted a miserable 74.1 QB rating through his six-turnover fiasco in the NFC championship game. Although the root of the Cardinals' downfall is open to interpretation, a bevy of pass-catchers (Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown, J.J. Nelson and David Johnson) should help Palmer forget the nightmare ending to 2015.
DAVID JOHNSON RIPE FOR THE PICKING
Speaking of the Johnsons, Chris re-upped with the Cardinals but will be hard-pressed to wrench a plurality of RB reps away from David, who can tear out the opposition's heart in a variety of ways. Portending what was to come, David Johnson reached the end zone as a receiver, kick returner and rusher in the first two games of his career, which marked the first such occurrence in NFL history. As the season wore on, he continued to hit pay dirt often and even led all rookies with eight touchdowns – or two more than Todd Gurley on 105 fewer touches (including special teams) – when Week 13 brought David to the fore. With the elder Johnson and Andre Ellington both sidelined due to injury, David Johnson expedited his emergence, extending his TD barrage globally and, in particular, running roughshod over the Eagles for 187 rushing yards in Week 15. David's subsequent seven-game tour as the starting running back yielded 864 yards and six touchdowns in all facets, resulting in Arians' vote of confidence as Arizona's bell cow. The presence of Chris Johnson and Ellington shouldn't impact that sentiment in the slightest.
PASS RUSH RIDDLE SOLVED?
The Cardinals don't lack for playmakers on defense, either. Trotting out All-Pro defensive backs Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu in man coverage, an aggressive scheme composed of frequent blitzing has nonetheless been unable to produce a player with double-digit sacks since John Abraham notched 11.5 in 2013. The situation grew so dire last year that greybeard LB Dwight Freeney was inked after five games, yet Arizona still fell shy of the league average in sacks for the second straight campaign. A lack of cap space forced GM Steve Keim to reach into his bag of tricks in the offseason, dealing G Jonathan Cooper and a 2016 second-round pick to the Patriots for LB Chandler Jones. Owner of 36 sacks and 203 pressures in his first four seasons, Jones will slot in as the outside pass-rush complement to Calais Campbell on the interior. Additionally, the draft may have yielded a diamond in the rough. Landing DT Robert Nkemdiche in the first round elicits shades of the 2013 selection of Mathieu, who was an elite talent with character concerns that has thrived in the structure provided by Arians.
KEY JOB BATTLE
Andre Ellington's injury woes reemerged in 2014, during which the Cardinals trotted out the likes of Stepfan Taylor, Kerwynn Williams, and even Robert Hughes at running back. As a contingency plan, general manager Steve Keim scooped up David Johnson in 2015 NFL Draft and Chris Johnson in the midst of training camp. After Ellington suffered a PCL strain in Week 1, Chris dominated the RB reps until an injury of his own forced David into the lead role. The rookie proceeded to rip up all comers, spurring the belief that he'll hold down the top job. However, in order to keep the backfield fresh, Chris Johnson is poised to earn regular carries as the backup running back, while Ellington is best-suited to serve as a pass-catcher.
PIVOTAL PLAYERDavid Johnson
Johnson demonstrated game-breaking potential from his first pro snap, despite playing second (and third) fiddle to Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington. Injuries to the pair in Week 12 paved the way for Johnson, the rookie, to head the Arizona backfield down the stretch, and he didn't disappoint, finishing in the NFL's top 10 in both TDs and all-purpose yards.
RISING: John Brown
If Father Time ever catches up to Larry Fitzgerald, Brown has exhibited the necessary traits of a No. 1 WR. As evidence, Brown required the second-fewest targets of any player to reach 1,000 yards receiving in 2015.
FALLING: Andre Ellington
After back-to-back injury-marred seasons, Ellington is a novelty item in Arizona's offense at this point. With a clear RB pecking order – David, then Chris Johnson – Ellington will again scrounge for scraps, when healthy.
SLEEPER: J.J. Nelson
Slight of stature but fleet of foot, Nelson was missing in action as a rookie outside of a 142-yard outburst in Week 11. Aiding his cause, though, will be freewheeling coach Bruce Arians and gunslinger Carson Palmer.
THE INJURY FRONT
Chris Johnson, RB – Johnson suffered a premature end to a bounce-back campaign in Arizona, which in conjunction with a turf toe injury to Andre Ellington allowed David Johnson to stake a firm claim to the No. 1 gig. Although healthy, the veteran Johnson will merely spell the second-year pro, at best.
Tyrann Mathieu, DB – For the second time in three seasons with the Cardinals, Mathieu suffered a torn ACL, but on this occasion the devastating ailment wasn't accompanied by an LCL tear. While the two-time All-Pro has progressed well in his recovery, he's reticent to take the field until 100 percent healthy, placing his Week 1 availability in question.
Patrick Peterson, CB – After undergoing surgery on his right ankle in late April, Peterson's ability to take part in individual drills during mandatory minicamp bodes well for this training camp viability. Nevertheless, his standing as one of the NFL's top cover cornerbacks diminishes his IDP relevance.
Deone Bucannon, LB – Bucannon has grown ever comfortable as a dollar linebacker, totaling 195 tackles (159 solo), five sacks, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and one interception for a touchdown in two complete seasons. As a three-down player, his second consecutive 100-tackle campaign should come to pass.
Kevin Minter, LB – Working next to Deone Bucannon and in front of a stellar secondary has predictably kept Minter's tackle tally in check. As evidence, Minter notched just 94 stops in 2015, despite logging a career-best 89 percent of the defensive snaps. Consequently, expectations surrounding the inside linebacker should remain tempered.
Tony Jefferson, S – Jefferson's peripheral stats – three forced fumbles, two sacks, and two interceptions (one pick-six) – boosted him up the IDP charts in 2015. Tyrann Mathieu's recovery and Tyvon Branch's acclimation process could press Jefferson into a starting job off the bat, but the Cards' heavy use of DBs should nonetheless sustain his snap count.
Chandler Jones – LB (from Patriots)
Lacking a top-tier pass rush, Cards scooped up sack artist via trade.
Robert Nkemdiche – DT (Rd. 1, No. 29 – Mississippi)
Freak of nature heightens potential to startle opposing QBs.
EVAN MATHIS – G (from Broncos)
Pass protection has become a liability, but beefs up run-blocking.
RASHAD JOHNSON – S (to Titans)
Aged 30, long-time sage of Arizona's secondary moves on to AFC South.
JERRAUD POWERS – CB (to Ravens)
Injuries, ineffectiveness forced GM Steve Keim to look elsewhere.
Dwight Freeney – LB (FA)
Part-time pass rusher, at best, at this stage of his career.
BOBBY MASSIE – T (to Bears)
The 6-foot-6 mauler started 46 games in first four campaigns.