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ESPN Insider: Cardinals once again NFC sleeper contender

On the one hand, it’s good for the Arizona Cardinals to be considered a “sleeper contender” for their division, despite getting dragged to the end of last season on the shoulders of numerous limping backups.

On the other hand, getting called a sleeper is like getting recognized as one of the best teams who didn’t make it.

And it just takes one season for a team to go from being a sleeper to a flat-out contender.

The Cardinals have spent their offseason healing injuries to their quarterback, backup, and many other key positions, and are once again considered a sleeper in the NFC by ESPN Insider Field Yates.

But could all of the offseason work pay off enough to move Arizona over the hump from “the team that never quite could” to wide-awake and much more than a tattered Wild Card?

Yates recognizes there were few — if none at all — teams who were battered like the Cardinals were last season. He notes that despite going through four quarterbacks and playing with several second-string players from game to game, Arizona managed to shove its way into NFC Wild Card position.

“With Palmer healthy, an improved running game and under-the-radar personnel moves to fortify an already exceptional defense,” he wrote, “the Cardinals are primed for another run to the postseason in 2015 — and potentially a deeper one.”

Arizona will return key players in outside linebacker Matt Shaugnessy, running back Andre Ellington, safety Tyrann Mathieu and filled in the loss of veteran leader Darnell Dockett (injured all last year before signing with San Francisco) with another veteran, Cory Redding.

Health is just one factor in improving the Cardinals, however.

Yates also cites the upgrades to the offensive line, which include offensive tackle and first round pick D.J. Humphries and former 49ers guard Mike Iupati.

These improvements, coupled with the return of top back Ellington and drafting a smasher in big running back David Johnson out of Northern Iowa, bode well for a run attack that ranked last in the NFL last season.

The receiving corps, writes Yates, is full of mostly young, athletic wideouts led by veterans in Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald. With the return of Palmer, the Cardinals have a wealth of pass options — especially in comparison to the wideout drought of 2014 as Arizona cycled through three different backup quarterbacks.

Finally, the defense carefully and effectively operated by former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles for the last two years will have a new brain under the headset, but the mentality will stay the same.

James Bettcher, who was promoted internally from his role as linebackers coach, will retain the core of Arizona’s highly-touted defense. Yates cites Bettcher also has a few new toys in outside linebacker Lamar Woodley and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, alongside defensive tackle Corey Peters and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.

Add that all together, said Yates, and the Cardinals become a legitimate contender in the NFC in 2015.