Preview: Cardinals better than many believe

The Cardinals don’t get the accolades of the 49ers or Seahawks, but they are closing in on their divisional rivals. With talent accruing on both sides of the ball, Arizona will provide a very solid litmus test for the Vikings.

If the Arizona Cardinals were in any other division, they likely would be viewed as a favorite to win it this season. But, even coming off a 10-6 season in which they won seven of their last nine games, most analysts project the Cardinals to finish third in the incredibly tough NFC West, which has sent the last two NFC teams to the Super Bowl.

If anything, the Cardinals have loaded up even more, adding some key pieces to a core that has been developed over the last couple of years to bring the offense on par with a defense that has quietly become dominant. As evidenced by their 32-0 win in their first preseason game, big things are expected from Arizona this year and they could make an ideal opponent for the Vikings to use as a measuring stick as to how far along Mike Zimmer’s team is.

The Cardinals have been proof of what having a veteran quarterback can do. For the last 15-20 years, the Cardinals have had a revolving door at quarterback, but when they landed a solid veteran with experience and a track record, winning became contagious. Kurt Warner led the Cardinals all the way to the Super Bowl. But after yet another concussion ended his career, the Cardinals had numerous quarterbacks try and fail to replicate that success. That changed when the team landed Carson Palmer from the Raiders.

Palmer posted big numbers last year – throwing for more than 4,200 yards, and the Cardinals may have the most depth they’ve had since Warner led them to the Super Bowl. Already with Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald and emerging Michael Floyd at wide receiver, they added Ted Ginn Jr. for receiver depth and signed former Viking John Carlson to be a receiving threat at tight end.

Perhaps the biggest change is at running back, which has been a sore spot for more than a decade. The Cardinals have made a habit of signing running backs that were beyond their prime – a list that includes guys like Emmitt Smith, Edgerrin James and Rashard Mendenhall – and when they attempted to draft a running back high in the draft (Beanie Wells leads that list), they were significant busts. For years, the Cardinals didn’t have a running back that averaged four yards a carry and more often they had a hard time cracking three yards a carry. That changed in a big way last season with the arrival of Clemson rookie Andre Ellington.

Mendenhall ended up leading the team in rushing with 687 yards, but he did so on 217 carries – a dismal average of 3.2 yards a carry. Ellington rushed for 652 yards, but he did it on just 118 carries – an average of 5.5 yards a carry. In the only game Mendenhall missed due to injury, he ran for 154 yards on only 15 carries. For a team that has struggled to run the ball with any effectiveness for years, Ellington gives the Cardinals their most promising running back in years.

Combine that with the free agent signing of massive left tackle Jared Veldheer (Oakland) and the return of right guard Jonathan Cooper, the 2013 first-round pick whose rookie season was wiped out by a broken leg suffered in the preseason, the Cardinals may have their best offensive line in years as well, making them a much more viable option to outscore teams if needed.

The defense is stacked with veteran talent that worked extremely well in their roles in the Arizona 3-4 scheme. It includes defensive ends Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett, linebackers John Abraham and Larry Foote and cornerback Antonio Cromartie – all of whom have played in the NFL seven or more seasons. Add in dynamic defensive backs Patrick Peterson and the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu, and the Cardinals have an experience-laden defense that has embraced Bruce Arians’ system and thrived in it with defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ high-risk, high-reward system.

The Cardinals allowed 14 points or fewer in seven games last year and won all of them. With an offense that looks to be improved and a defense that is aging, but not too old, the window for success has arrived. Unfortunately for them, they’re in a division that includes two of the favorites to go to the Super Bowl. But with the talent they have in place, they will be an ideal test for the Vikings. They will be an excellent litmus test for where the Vikings have progressed to date or how much farther they have go to reach their own goals.

The Cardinals may not be on a lot of fan radars as one of the improving teams that may be ready to make the jump to legitimate Super Bowl contenders, but they have stacked themselves well on both sides on the ball.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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