ESPN’s Barnwell picks Cardinals as one of most likely declining NFL teams

Aug 1, 2018, 10:31 AM | Updated: 9:42 pm

Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks huddles with his team during practice at the NFL football ...

Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks huddles with his team during practice at the NFL football team's training camp Thursday, June 7, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

After the way the 2017 season went with injuries, the Arizona Cardinals had to be satisfied with a record of 8-8.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell says so himself, calling a 5-4 record with backup quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton a “nice note” for former head coach Bruce Arians to go out on.

With that being said, this is not a reason to believe the Cardinals are trending upward, according to Barnwell.

The ESPN staff writer picked six teams in the NFL that are the most likely to decline and the Cardinals were one of ’em.

What is Barnwell worried about? Well, it’s hard not to see his reasoning given the fact the Cardinals have a new head coach and starting quarterback.

Why might they struggle to hit those same heights in 2018? Changes. New coach Steve Wilks is moving the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment, and while that means less than ever before because of how frequently teams line up in sub packages, there will likely be growing pains.

Barnwell is concerned about how the Cardinals replace the key contributors they lost on defense as well.

Nine defenders played 50 percent or more of the defensive snaps for Arizona last year, and five of them — most notably safety Tyrann Mathieu, who played 99.4 percent of the defensive snaps last season — are no longer on the roster.

The departures outside of Mathieu include safety Tyvon Branch, cornerback Tramon Williams, linebacker Karlos Dansby and defensive lineman Frostee Rucker.

Despite a currently healthy offense, Barnwell believes it’s a “big ask” for running back David Johnson to stay upright for a full 16 games after pulling his hamstring in 2015, spraining his MCL at the end of 2016 and missing almost all of last year because of a wrist injury. There’s also the offensive line’s reliance on left tackle D.J. Humphries and right guard Justin Pugh, who both have their fair share of injury histories.

Ah, yes, this is without even arriving at Sam Bradford. The veteran QB’s injuries are well-documented, with a worrisome knee that doesn’t feasibly lead to a path toward 16 starts. And while rookie Josh Rosen would provide some serious excitement in his place, he had a shoulder injury in 2016 and two concussions last season at UCLA.

There’s also the schedule.

FPI projects the Cardinals to face the third-toughest slate in the NFL thanks to a relatively difficult NFC West and a pair of tough divisions in the AFC West and NFC North. Last year, Arizona racked up wins against the Buccaneers (with an injured Jameis Winston), Colts and Giants and a pair of triumphs over the 49ers before the Garoppolo trade. The worst team on their schedule this season might be Denver.

As Barnwell notes in the piece, Las Vegas currently has the Cardinals’ over/under for wins at just 5.5.

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ESPN’s Barnwell picks Cardinals as one of most likely declining NFL teams