SI: Once injuries start hitting the Cardinals, ‘this team will crumble’
The defense will blitz, David Johnson received a blessing in disguise by missing last season, and we can expect to see Josh Rosen start at some point.
Those are three of Sports Illustrated’s predictions for the Arizona Cardinals in 2018.
Andy Benoit published his 10 Thoughts column on the Cardinals, half focusing on defense and half on the offense.
His final takeaway: “Once injuries start hitting, this team will crumble. Expect a trying transition year in Arizona.”
Let’s go through and see what led him to this thought.
Benoit starts the article by saying Arizona blitzed a lot last season — the second-most in the league.
The only team that did it more was the Carolina Panthers and then-defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who is now the Cardinals’ head coach.
While Arizona doesn’t have linebackers like Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, Benoit said Deone Bucannon and Haason Reddick have comparable speed.
What could really allow the Cardinals to thrive on the blitz is their defensive line.
First off, Chandler Jones has created the most negative plays for offenses over the last two seasons, according to Benoit.
Secondly, Markus Golden will be returning from an ACL injury and Benoit expects Reddick to get a chance rushing the quarterback, his “forte” in college.
“If either fully emerges, Arizona’s edge rushing will be outstanding,” Benoit wrote. “If both emerge, it could be unstoppable.”
That’s not even mentioning lineman Olsen Pierre, who Benoit has been impressed with based on film.
“He’s proficient on the stunts and twists that Wilks features and has the tenacity to consistently make plays late in the down,” Benoit wrote.
With that said, Benoit isn’t sold on Robert Nkemdiche.
While he thinks the lineman’s skill set will better translate in Wilks’ 4-3 system than the Cardinals’ hybrid 3-4 under former defensive coordinator James Bettcher, it’s no guarantee that Nkemdiche will live up to his potential.
If he can’t this year, he might not at all.
“If (Nkemdiche) doesn’t hone some of his extensive raw talent in 2018, he never will,” Benoit wrote.
“The Cardinals, though talented enough to harbor a win-now mentality, are likely in a rebuilding season,” Benoit wrote.
That means, one could presume that at some point, quarterback Sam Bradford will take a backseat to the quarterback of the future, Josh Rosen.
Benoit noted that UCLA had some route combinations that offensive coordinator Mike McCoy employs in his system.
While the Cardinals do try to win, though, they’ll rely on their stars.
Larry Fitzgerald is the “only known entity” of the receiving corps, Benoit wrote.
He gushed over Fitzgerald, saying that though he’s not as fast as he used to be, his patience and route-running skills allowed him to remain remarkably productive in the slot.
“It’s a great reminder that speed can be overrated; as a receiver, defenders have to react to YOUR tempo,” Benoit wrote. “Super savvy technique can be enough to create separation.”
Meanwhile, running back David Johnson saved a year of his legs and closer to the end of his cheap rookie deal — one that Benoit thinks makes him “the best bargain in pro football (if not pro sports).”
Because of that, Benoit said, the broken wrist Johnson suffered was a “financial blessing in disguise.”
Johnson’s combination of lateral strength and agility is unparalleled. A play called “just give David the ball” would constitute smart, not lazy, coaching.
The success and health of the team again relies on the offensive line. Benoit said that though it’s revamped, the line might not have improved.
He had negatives on each presumed starter.
Benoit on D.J. Humphries: “Gifted, but injuries have cost in 14 games in two years.”
On Mike Iupati: “Too prone to mental mistakes and physical breakdowns.”
On the center position: “A.Q. Shipley is out with a torn ACL, so the Cards are counting on third-round rookie Mason Cole.”
On Justin Pugh: “Pugh’s $15.75 million guaranteed free agent contract makes it easy to forget that he was wildly up and down for the Giants last year.”
On Andre Smith: “Thanks to a weird mix of injuries, great plays and execution gaffes, 10th-year right tackle Andre Smith remains unofficially the NFL’s biggest enigma.”
On the plus side, the Cardinals’ line can’t have much worse luck than its injury-plagued 2017 season.
But the bottom line is, if the offensive line bottoms out, it could send Arizona to the bottom of the conference.