Some Cardinals notes as the team heads into its break
The Arizona Cardinals wrapped up their offseason work last week, and will not reconvene as a team until late July when training camp begins.
By all accounts, the team had a successful few weeks of OTAs and mini-camp, which is why head coach Bruce Arians decided to end things a day early.
His message to the team, before the players departed, was a simple one.
“Come back with that attitude; we went through 13 practices and just great football and great competition, guys going after each other extremely well,” he said. “And come back with that etiquette of going extremely hard but protecting each other, and we’ll be fine.”
Of course, Arians probably also said something to the effect of making sure to not do anything silly or dumb, but perhaps that doesn’t even need to be brought up. Focus is not an issue for this team, which heads into this new season very much with Super Bowl aspirations.
There’s no way to know if they are destined to be in Houston for Super Bowl LI in February. In fact, given that this last handful of weeks never saw any of the players in pads, it is difficult to really form ironclad opinions about anything with the team.
However, here are some takeways.
J.J. Nelson looks like a different player
A speedy receiver who mostly served as a reserve and deep threat last season, Nelson really seemed to open some eyes this summer with the improvements he has made. The speed is still there — but now so is improved route running and recognition.
It all stems from experience.
“When you’re going out there and you’re thinking a lot — this route, do I have this on this route, what’s my depth, what coverage is the defense playing — once you know those things you’re able to play fast,” Nelson said. “You’re not thinking; you’re just focusing on catching the ball.”
Arians praised the second-year pro, noting how when a fast guy stops thinking, he’s even faster. But more than his speed, Nelson’s hands and ability to catch the ball over his shoulder seemed to be what really stood out to the coach.
“He has a very unique skill in tracking the ball that the great ones have,” Arians said. “When the ball is coming over your opposite shoulder and you just catch it effortlessly when other guys can’t make that catch.
“When you have a little fast guy that can do that, you’ve got a special one.”
D.J. Humphries has done nothing to lose his job or the confidence of his coaches
Given that he was not active for any of the team’s 18 games last season, it’s understandable that there would be some trepidation over the prospect of Humphries being the team’s right tackle this season. That said, and take this with the caveat that until pads are on, linemen are not really able to stand out, it appears the former first-round pick is on the right track.
As offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin noted, Humphries has come into this season a different player.
“I think he’s a little bit more focused. He’s matured a whole bunch — I don’t think he’s quite there — but it’s night and day as far as last year being on the grass and this year,” he said. “I’m not worried about D.J. from a physicality standpoint or a knowledge standpoint, and I just want to make sure he’s prepared and I think he’s going to be OK by the time the season starts.”
None of this is to say the job is guaranteed to be Humphries’, but at this point it’s apparent the right tackle spot is his to lose.
The team has a few options at running back
Never before have the Cardinals had this kind of running back depth.
David Johnson set a franchise rookie record with 12 total touchdowns last season and, after injuries elevated him to the top of the running back depth chart, proved capable of being an impact starter.
Chris Johnson, who was signed during training camp, was among the league leaders in rushing yards before being lost for the season with a leg injury.
Andre Ellington entered the last two seasons as the starter but now finds himself third in the pecking order, yet still figures to have a role given his talents in the passing game.
“It’s all going to depend on how it shakes out; each gameplan is a little bit different,” Arians said of Ellington’s role. “He still brings a lot of explosiveness to our offense. We’ll definitely get him in there — now, how many touches he gets is going to depend on how all three of them are playing.”
In fact, health permitting all three are expected to see time this year. Goodwin talked about the idea of using two running backs at the same time, which is something Arians said has been in the playbook but not utilized due to injuries.
Will this be the season it finally happens?
Brandon Williams ready sooner rather than later?
Though he was a third-round pick, most figured Brandon Williams was a bit of a project and would be unable to contribute as a cornerback early in his rookie season.
Turns out, that might not be the case.
Williams, who has just one season of experience in the secondary under his belt, took advantage of extra reps during the summer and showed enough to make Arians think he could make an immediate impact.
“That’s why we took him in the third round,” Arians said of Williams’ progression. “It ain’t hard to play ‘dude coverage.’ You all know what ‘dude coverage’ is right? You got that dude.”
Williams’ ascension will be an interesting storyline in training camp, as right now Justin Bethel is still in line to be the starting cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson. Bethel, who missed offseason work due to foot surgery, believes he is capable of being a great starting cornerback, though.
Carson Palmer is still Carson Palmer
The Cardinals have the utmost amount of confidence in their quarterback, who is coming off one of the best seasons of his career but also one of the worst games he has ever played.
To his credit, Palmer understands why some would have doubts about his ability to get the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, and notes he won’t be able to quiet them until he, you know, gets the Cardinals to the Super Bowl.
Though he is 36 years old, Palmer spent much of his time this offseason — which was, unlike last season, not devoted to rehab from an injury — trying to refine his game and improve in some areas. Arians noted how the QB was taking more risks in practice, trying to fit throws into tight windows just to see if he is able to do that, and Palmer said he progressed with a number of concepts that he wanted to get comfortable with.
“That we repped, I don’t know, through OTAs and this mini-camp, 20 times, same concept, plays,” he said. “There’s a number of things I’ve got to work on; I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.
“But footwork is always number one, it’s always where I start and really kind of start over with the shoulder rehab, the strength, and really preparation to be able to throw and just the endurance to get through that endurance factor that you have to get through with going through camp and feeling 100 percent for the season.”
Excitement over familiarity
Every player who gained a single yard or scored an offensive touchdown for the Cardinals last season has returned.
Every. Single. Player.
That Chris Johnson and tight end Jermaine Gresham returned was a welcome surprise, and the lack of change from a group that was among the best in the NFL last season is in no way a bad thing.
“It’s a first for me,” Arians said. “You very seldom get to keep all your guys at this level. The meetings are so smooth, the practices are so smooth, and they’re doing a great job of training young guys. Chris working with David (Johnson), and Jermaine working with Ifeanyi (Momah) and everybody else. It’s a good mix of veterans and young guys right now.”
And at center…
Entering camp, veteran A.Q. Shipley will be the Cardinals’ starting center.
Of course, it was the title he held at the same time one year ago, only to lose the job to Lyle Sendlein.
This season, though, Shipley’s competition is fourth-round pick Evan Boehm, who some expect to ultimately earn the job, or maybe even fourth-year pro Earl Watford.
Boehm understands he is adjusting to a new system and style of play, and knows he has room to improve, while Shipley is confident he will be the guy manning the middle in Week 1. Watford may be the most intriguing name of the trio, given that he was drafted as a guard and has played there as well as right tackle for the team.
This season he has added center to the repertoire, which is what led Goodwin to refer to him as the team’s “Swiss Army Knife.”
When asked which players stood out to him over the few weeks of practices, Arians mentioned Watford, and even noted how it is he and not Boehm who is currently second on the depth chart behind Shipley.
Robert Nkmediche looks the part
In terms of appearance, first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche looks the part of a dominant defensive lineman.
In terms of how he practiced over the last few weeks, he looked the part of a dominant defensive lineman.
Of course, as is the case with anyone who plays in the trenches, the true measure of his readiness and impact will be seen in training camp when the pads are on.
Still, the Ole Miss product has done everything the team expected of him up to this point, and the belief is he will continue to impress next month.
The Cardinals have a handful of key players either coming back from injury or still working their way back.
Defensive tackle Corey Peters, who hurt his left Achilles tendon in training camp last year and missed the entire season, was back on the field without limitations. He said he cannot wait for training camp.
As already noted, Justin Bethel is still working his way back from foot surgery.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson was back on the field for mini-camp, as he took part in individual drills.
And Tyrann Mathieu, who tore his ACL late last season, looked good working out on the side but still has work to do before he is ready to put on a helmet and get back on the field.
“I really don’t have a timeline on when I’ll be back,” he said. “The most important thing is me coming back 100 percent. I think that’s most important.”
Arians said Mathieu and Frostee Rucker are not guaranteed to be ready to go by training camp, but the rest of the notable players who are working their way back should be fine.