The 6 Biggest Takeaways from Arizona Cardinals OTAs
As the Arizona Cardinals wrap up OTAs (organized team activities), it is time to look at some things to take away from the three weeks of unpadded practice.
It is customary for the “starting lineups” to change frequently during OTAs as the team searches for the right fit at certain positions. Such was the case over the past few weeks with key spots on the roster—chiefly right guard and right tackle.
It’s important to take OTA lineups with a grain of salt based on that, because with so many players who do different things well (and with so many players on the roster), coaches will work with different combinations in an attempt to get the best possible starting lineup come Week 1.
These six takeaways are things to watch as camp begins in July.
Competition for Jay Feely
Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com reported last week that kicker Jay Feely is intent on winning the kicking competition he currently is in with an undrafted rookie and a young kicker who has yet to attempt a field goal in a real game.
Feely signed what essentially is a one-year prove-it deal after struggling early and late in the 2013 season.
The 14-year veteran blamed his struggles on an injury, according to Odegard:
I couldn’t kick, really, the whole offseason until training camp. I was a little behind. I knew I was going to be, but I had to let it heal. With the trainers we had talked about what the best strategy was, and it was not kick, let it heal. So the first couple weeks I knew I was going to be a little rusty and be behind.
I felt like the last three, four weeks my leg was tired. It didn’t hold up the way it normally would, and that was directly related to the inability to train the way I wanted to.
That’s one theory.
Is it also possible that at 38 years old, Feely isn’t the young chap he once was and could start declining earlier in the season based on that fact. That is not to say he definitely is declining physically, because it’s entirely possible that Feely’s inability to train how he is used to training played a part in missing four field goals over the final month of the season.
Whatever the reason, general manager Steve Keim felt it necessary to create real competition for Feely this offseason and, as a result, Danny Hrapmann and Chandler Catanzaro have the chance to beat out the longtime NFL kicker.
Offense Ready to Break Out?
The Carson Palmer-led Cardinals were hard to gauge in 2013. One week, the offense would look horrific, and the next, it would look like it’s supposed to look under head coach Bruce Arians.
Palmer claims his offense looks much better than it did at this time last year. “There is zero comparison,” he said, via Kent Somers of AZCentral.com. “This was fun, this was enjoyable. You could see the development of certain guys. It jumped off the field at you.”
Could that mean the offense is ready to take the next step and carry the defense when it has to? There were games last season that the defense could not hold opposing offenses, and Palmer and Co. could not keep up.
Since moving to the Valley in 1988, the Cardinals have allowed at least 30 points in a game 114 times, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. They are 9-105 (.079) in those games. Last season, Todd Bowles’ defense allowed 30-plus points four times, and the team went 1-3 in those games.
What’s troubling about that is two of the games came against the teams that finished ahead of them in the NFC West, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. The only win came in overtime at the Tennessee Titans after the defense inexplicably blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead.
Given the Daryl Washington suspension, Palmer may sometimes have to carry the team this season. Though the defense improved in certain areas and should still be among the best in football, not having Washington or the money-hungry Karlos Dansby could hurt at times.
Palmer has a plethora of great targets with which to work, so as I wrote on Monday, there is no excuse for offensive failure this season.
The Hole at Inside Linebacker
Washington is suspended for at least the 2014 season. Dansby is off to the Cleveland Browns because he apparently does not intend to win a Super Bowl at any point in his career.
What, then, do the Cardinals do at inside linebacker?
We know 2013 second-round pick Kevin Minter will start on one side. But what about the other? There could be as many as three real options.
First, we have Lorenzo Alexander, who is moving from outside linebacker to full-time inside this season, according to a tweet from Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds. He has played inside backer before, so this is not a completely new venture for Alexander:
Lorenzo Alexander will be moved over full time to inside linebacker. No one else will be moved, said Arians.— Jess Root (@senorjessroot) June 2, 2014
Next up is free-agent signee Larry Foote. It seems like Foote has been playing for two decades, but at 33 and fresh off a season in which he played a grand total of 59 snaps before he ruptured his biceps muscle in his first game back with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he should be fresh and could have a step up on Alexander.
Only time will tell.
And rounding out the candidates for starting inside linebacker is Ernie Sims, who signed a one-year contract on Tuesday, according to Odegard. The former top-10 pick out of Florida State has never lived up to the billing, but he’s very athletic and could be a wild card to win some starting time this season.
He’s never been known as a great pass-rusher, but in Arizona, he could thrive based on his quickness. Its defensive line creates open lanes through the A-gaps on a weekly basis, so he will have his chances when in the game.
John Brown Taking T.Y. Hilton Comparison Seriously
It’s not possible for third-round pick, receiver John Brown, to be any more like Indianapolis Colts former third-round pick T.Y. Hilton on the field. The two are the same height, the same weight, put up an identical time in the 40-yard dash at the combine, and so on and so on.
It’s a little creepy how similar they are, to be honest. They were even taken just one pick apart in their respective draft (Brown No. 91, Hilton No. 92).
Brown understands he’s very closely matched to Hilton, and he’s taking it seriously this offseason:
Studying T.Y. Hilton film he nice with it— john brown (@RIPJWALK5) May 30, 2014
Brown should eventually have the same role as Hilton does in Indy, though, Hilton didn’t have to climb the small hill that is Ted Ginn Jr. at No. 3 on the depth chart. Keim signed Ginn presumably to be Arians’ No. 3 receiver and kickoff/punt return specialist, but then Brown came along and got to work impressing coaches and teammates during OTAs.
Now, there could be a fight for that “starting slot” receiver position. It’s not a bad thing for competition to pop up unexpectedly.
It’s quite the contrary, in fact.
Does Brown have a realistic shot at becoming the No. 3 receiver by the time Arizona’s Week 1 Monday night showdown with the San Diego Chargers kicks off? Probably not, but we should consider the No. 3 receiver spot wide open until we’re told otherwise.
Antonio Cromartie Healthy?
Free agent cornerback Antonio Cromartie signed a one-year deal this offseason to be Arizona’s No. 2 cornerback. He had a down year in 2013, his final season with the New York Jets, allowing seven touchdowns to just three interceptions and a 100.7 quarterback rating when targeted, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
His 19.1 yards-per-catch-against average was second to Buffalo Bills cornerback Justin Rogers for worst in the league due in large part to his ailing hip, which he injured during the 2008 season and has had to deal with off and on since.
The injury—a hip flexor strain that left his hip joint completely intact, according to Cromartie via Seth Walder of the New York Daily News—did not require surgery this offseason. That’s good news for the Cardinals, who needed an upgrade at the outside cornerback position and can ill-afford a setback with Cromartie’s hip.
He is healthy, according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com, and Cromartie told him training camp will be the real tell of how his hip is doing:
It’s a knock-on-wood thing. It’s early. Things are moving a little fast because we are in shorts, but it’s the point of adding extra pounds when we are wearing pads in camp. That’s when we can really tell. But now, with the pounding (while running around), I feel pretty good.
Right Side of Offensive Line Very Much Undecided
As mentioned at the outset, the right side of the offensive line is still undecided. Bobby Massie and Bradley Sowell continue to battle for the right tackle spot, as do Paul Fanaika and 2013 fourth-round pick Earl Watford for right guard.
The shifting of starters at the two positions could continue into camp as Arians looks for the right combination to protect Palmer this season.
Fanaika and now-free agent Eric Winston manned the positions in 2013, and while both struggled at times early, both shored up their play and performed well down the stretch.
His experience is probably the only reason Fanaika has a shot this season, as the future of right guard appears to be on the broad shoulders of Watford; it’s just a matter of when will he be ready to take over?
We should see all four—Massie, Sowell, Fanaika and Watford—start at least one preseason game to find the perfect gelling point for the offense, so the first starting lineup of training camp will be written using a pencil with a large eraser.
This is the biggest unknown entering camp, so if you attend practices open to the public, pay close attention to who is out there and how they are doing.