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With few changes, Arizona Cardinals offense already ahead of 2015

Arizona Cardinals running back Chris Johnson (23) stretches during a team practice , Tuesday, May 17, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals’ offensive line will likely have three new starters in 2016.

From there, the offense is basically the same as it was in 2015.

Carson Palmer is returning as quarterback, David Johnson is still the running back, and receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown have not gone anywhere.

Tight end Darren Fells is here, too, as are Jermaine Gresham, Chris Johnson and Jaron Brown.

Pretty much if you played a key role for the Cardinals’ offense in 2015, when Arizona led the NFL in total offense and set franchise marks for passing yards, total touchdowns and total points, you are back for another season.

In a league where change is one of the few constants, seeing that much roster consistency is a little unexpected.

“I was real surprised with Chris and Jermaine, very pleasantly surprised, that they wanted to stay,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said Tuesday after the team’s first OTA practice of the year. “We definitely wanted them and so yeah, it’s a nice feeling.”

Johnson and Gresham are both interesting cases because it would not have been at all surprising to see them depart in free agency. Johnson led the team with 814 rushing yards last season but lost his starting job to David Johnson due to an injury, while Gresham caught a career-low 18 passes in an offense that does not necessarily feature the tight end.

Both are veterans with something left in the tank, and each received more lucrative offers from other teams. Yet, they chose to return on one-year contracts, looking to make one more run at the Super Bowl that eluded them last season.

“It was a situation going through the whole process where I didn’t want to keep jumping from team to team, wanted to stay somewhere familiar,” Johnson said. “And it was just a whole situation where it wasn’t worth — I can say the money wasn’t worth leaving — whatever the other teams offered me, it wasn’t really worth leaving.”

Gresham offered similar thoughts back in March when asked about coming back, saying, being on a contender played a role in his decision.

“Just discussing thing with my family and things like that, and we have a plan with it. This was the first step of many so that it was most definitely me being happiest in Arizona.”

It worked out pretty well for the Cardinals, who believe an entire offseason with the organization will go a long way toward better seasons for Johnson and Gresham. Last year Gresham joined the Cardinals on July 24, while Johnson was added to the fold on Aug. 17.

The chance to take part in mini-camp and OTAs as well as an entire training camp with the team can only be seen as a positive.

“That’s the big thing,” Arians said. “They came in late in training camp, injured, and Chris got thrown in real late, so it’s nice to have them, get them in shape, learn the whole system, all the nuances.

“I think both of those guys can continue to accelerate.”

Once upon a time Johnson was one of the best running backs in football, and he was on pace to reach the Pro Bowl last season before getting hurt. As for Gresham, he was a Pro Bowler in 2011 and 2012 and has a track record of providing more than he did in his first season with the Cardinals.

Could the first full offseason with the team make that much of a difference?

According to QB Carson Palmer, yes.

“That’s so big in this offense and it’s so important to have that continuity going into training camp — especially that mini-camp as you break as a team and go your separate ways and get back together,” he said. “But we already know those guys, where they are, where they are mentally, where they need to get to, as opposed to signing Chris Johnson Week 2 or 3 of preseason, whatever it was, and just hoping he’s in shape and ready to go.

“We’re in such a better place having those guys in place and not hoping to sign a vet in mini-camp or training camp.”

It’s not just having Johnson and Gresham, though. The quarterback is the same, the running backs have returned and the receiver group, which is very highly regarded, also went unchanged. Any time a team can go into the offseason with the same group as the prior year, Palmer said, is important, because there is a confidence in knowing the team’s system can be executed at a high level rather than just hoping it can.

Given that the team’s offense has improved steadily every season since Arians took over in 2013, that analysis makes sense. So, does that mean there’s another level for the team to reach?

Arians said the lack of defections puts this year’s team light years ahead of the last couple, as Tuesday they had just one false start during practice.

“I would imagine the assignment sheet is very small, and rightfully so,” he said. “We looked at a couple little things today and we’ll continue to tweak things and look at them each day, but the guys know why they’re doing it instead of saying, ‘OK, watch this team do it and then you guys try to do it.’

“This is yourself doing it, this is how we’re going to tweak it and try to make it better.”

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