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Six Cardinals featured in SI’s top 100 NFL players list

Sports Illustrated has gathered information from around the league to put together the top 100 players in the NFL. The Arizona Cardinals tied for third-most players in the league with six: Calais Campbell (100), Evan Mathis (80), Larry Fitzgerald (76), Carson Palmer (62), Tyrann Mathieu (37) and Patrick Peterson (24).

Calais Campbell – No. 100

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Campbell has been so good for so long, it’s easy to take him for granted, but he had another excellent season in 2015, playing a lot of one-gap tackle in Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s aggressive fronts.

With Chandler Jones now on board as the edge rusher the Cardinals have needed for some time, Campbell should be able to make even more of an interior impact in 2016. — Doug Farrar

Ever since Campbell recorded a career-high nine sacks in 2013, Campbell’s sack total has slowly decreased the following two seasons to seven in 2014 and five in 2015. But as Farrar noted, adding Jones to the outside to rush the quarterback, Campbell might see fewer double teams in the inside of the trenches. The presence of a premier pass rusher on the outside should shift some of the light off of Campbell and allow him to create havoc down in the interior.

Evan Mathis – No. 80

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Mathis stepped into Gary Kubiak’s system last season and again showed why he is a top option. He excelled as a run blocker in Denver despite a nagging ankle that eventually required surgery after the Super Bowl. His pass protection sagged some, with three sacks and 19 hurries credited to him, although all of Denver’s O-line numbers were hindered by the QB play in ’15. That said, it’s more of his growing list of injuries and age (he’ll be 35 in November) that prevented him from being even higher on this list. Thanks to Mathis and incumbent starting guard Mike Iupati, the Cardinals should be able to control the ground game. — Chris Burke

The ground game should see a major increase for the second year in a row, especially with the emergence of David Johnson. Arizona went from 31st in rushing in 2014 to 8th in 2015. The addition of Mathis will also help keep Palmer upright, which is the key to this team’s success. The Cardinals saw first-hand how the team functioned when Palmer went down in 2014. Mathis was named to the All-Bargain Bin Team by The Ringer as the Cardinals seem to have gotten a steal in his one-year, $4 million deal.

Larry Fitzgerald – No. 76

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In his prime, Fitzgerald was the most feared receiver in the league, with a rare combination of quickness, downfield speed, toughness and intelligence. He enjoyed a renaissance season in 2015 with 109 catches for 1,215 yards and nine touchdowns, in part because over the last few seasons he has developed into a great escape hatch for quarterbacks in the Cardinals’ offense as a slot receiver. Last season, he caught 52 of 64 targets from the slot for 606 yards and three touchdowns. When coach Bruce Arians calls vertical routes to one side and timing routes to the other — a common construct for the Cardinals — Fitzgerald will often be asked to run a slant or drag route over the middle to give his quarterback yet another option.

It is this versatility and determination that has allowed Fitzgerald to excel in the slot just as he always has outside. — Doug Farrar

Prior to 2015, Fitzgerald hadn’t amassed 1,000 or more yards since 2011 when the receiver put up 1,411 yards. Most likely due to poor quarterback play, the veteran had his three-worst statistical seasons of his career from 2012 to 2014. The Cardinals extended Fitzgerald’s contract by another year, which guarantees the receiver will not wear another uniform.

Carson Palmer – No. 62

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Go figure when it comes to Palmer. He followed one of the best regular seasons in recent NFL quarterbacking history with perhaps the ugliest two-week playoff meltdown in memory. His epic six-turnover performance against Carolina in the NFC title game left you with the distinct impression that he folded under pressure, and nothing he accomplishes this year will truly matter unless he conquers his postseason demons. That said, Palmer played at an MVP Level for the Cardinals and was as consistently productive on a week-to-week basis as any quarterback in the league. — Don Banks

Palmer’s first three seasons with the Cardinals have been a series of ups and downs. His first season in 2013, Palmer threw for 4,274 yards, the most since 2007 with the Cincinnati Bengals. However, the quarterback suffered a torn ACL the following year and the team’s Super Bowl aspirations fell off the rails in a Wild Card loss to Carolina. Palmer had his best statistical season of his career last year with 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns. If he can vanquish his playoff nightmares, Palmer has a great opportunity to get the Cardinals to Houston in February.

Tyrann Mathieu – No. 37

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There’s a lot of discussion as to whether Mathieu is a better safety or slot cornerback, but the point is moot, because he covers both positions so well. More than that, though, he’s a force multiplier in James Bettcher’s defense because he’s a rover in the truest sense of the word.

What Mathieu may do best (and what the Cardinals allow him to do that other teams might not) is to guess right in the open field. He’ll bait receivers and then close to pick off passes. He’ll play off-coverage and move in for a tackle with very bad intentions.

That bold style leads to the occasional coverage lapse (he gave up five touchdowns last season, per Pro Football Focus), but his team will gladly deal with the occasional negative effects of his playing style because he’s utterly unique in his positional versatility and complete commitment to whatever it is he’s doing on the field. — Doug Farrar

Before Mathieu went down with his second major knee injury in three years, he was experiencing his best season in the league. The 24-year-old compiled five interceptions and had 80 total tackles. Arizona locked up Mathieu with a five-year extension, which was a major story-line heading into the offseason for the Cardinals. Arizona ranked fifth in total defense last season, and adding Jones to the defensive line could cause an impact for Mathieu. Creating more pressure on the opposing quarterback could allow more bad throws that could translate into more interception opportunities.

Patrick Peterson – No. 24

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Peterson walked into the NFL in 2011 as one of the best athletes in the game at any position, which set an impossibly high bar for acceptable performance that he has somehow met in making three All-Pro teams in his first five seasons. When he gets beat, he gets beat for splashy plays and long touchdowns, but those are infrequent side effects for his eye for the big play, and his lockdown capabilities make opportunities for his marks to solve him a rarity.

Peterson hasn’t missed a game in his five-year career with the Cardinals. The 26-year-old has always been in the conversation of ‘best cornerback in the league’ and the three All-Pro selections suggest that. Ever since Peterson intercepted seven passes in 2012, opposing teams have begun to create game-plans in avoiding the defensive back and his interception totals have dropped to no more than three. Not many non-quarterbacks can safely say that their presence on the field affects how their opponents strategize.

The SI staff ranked Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt as the No. 1 overall player. The Seattle Seahawks led the league with eight players, and Carolina came in second with seven players. Arizona tied with the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots with six players.

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