I’m in Glendale, Ariz. where the Cardinals, for the second straight year after holding camp in cool-climated Flagstaff, Ariz., are indoors at the air-conditioned University of Phoenix Stadium. No outside two-a-days in the brutal heat, as teams had before the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement softened the practice regimen at camps and eliminated double practices in one day. “It’s Camp Cupcake,’’ coach Bruce Arians told me with a grin.
One vivid memory from watching practice
The fast ascension of rookie wide receiver John Brown. You may have heard some things about young Mr. Brown, the third-round pick from Division-II Pittsburg State (Kan.) who has taken Cards camp by storm. Early in practice, during a red-zone passing period in 11-on-11 play, Brown was lined up wide left in a three-wide set on the second play, in the right slot tight with Larry Fitzgerald two plays later, in a tight bunch with running back Andre Ellington split left the next, in a four-wide set in the left slot the next. On the first seven-on-seven snap in the open field during the next period, Brown was in on the first play and caught a long out from Carson Palmer. “I’d say we could use him about 60% of the offensive snaps,’’ coach Bruce Arians told me. Pretty precocious kid, according to everyone in camp. Very fast, and slight, at 179 pounds.
How this team can go 12–4
Carson Palmer becomes the triggerman for an explosive offense, the kind Bruce Arians wanted when he took this job 20 months ago. Arians is confident Palmer has all the weapons he needs for the Cards to be a contender. But there’s a but here. Palmer’s going to have to score a boatload of points. GM Steve Keim acknowledged to me that he has “some questions” about how the front seven will perform in the wake of a fairly rapacious few months. Both inside linebackers—Karlos Dansby (who departed as a free-agent to Cleveland) and Daryl Washington (suspended for the season in May), and key defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (a torn ACL at last Monday’s practice) are gone. The secondary is good, but the front seven needs to play over its head.
How this team can go 4–12
Three ways: Palmer is error-prone, more the first-half quarterback from 2013 than the second-half guy; the defense can’t make up for very significant losses (particularly Washington); and the offensive line, which has been shaky this summer, lets too much pressure get to Palmer.
Now, from fantasyland …
1. Carson Palmer is a great backup quarterback, and I would be surprised if he didn’t play well enough to be a top-12 quarterback in fantasy this year. He was 7-2 down the stretch, with two 400-yard passing games. And his weaponry is better.
2. Not buying Larry Fitzgerald is probably the smart thing. Not that he’s going to fall off the face of the earth statistically, but Palmer’s got so many other alternatives that he and Arians like a lot.
3. John Brown will be over-hyped and some wise guy in your league could take him too high. But he’s really fast (second to Dri Archer at the combine this year), and Arians is going to call his name a lot. Taking him in the 10th round would probably be a good risk.
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How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|WR||Larry Fitzgerald||LDE||Frostee Rucker|
|LT||Jared Veldheer||NT||Dan Williams|
|LG||Jonathan Cooper/Earl Watford||RDE||Calais Campbell|
|C||Lyle Sendlein||OLB||John Abraham|
|RG||Paul Fanaika||MLB||Larry Foote|
|RT||Bobby Massie||ILB||Kevin Minter/Desmond Bishop|
|TE||John Carlson||OLB||Matt Shaughnessy|
|WR||Michael Floyd||CB||Patrick Peterson|
|3rd WR||John Brown/Ted Ginn/Jaron Brown||CB||Antonio Cromartie|
|QB||Carson Palmer||Nickel||Jerraud Powers|
|RB||Andre Ellington||SS||Tony Jefferson/Deone Bucannon|
|TE||Troy Niklas||FS||Tyrann Mathieu|
|K||Chandler Catanzaro/Jay Feely||P||Dave Zastudil|
Cooper was never hurt at North Carolina, and the Cards took him with the seventh pick of the 2013 draft. It’s been a disaster since. He broke his leg in camp last year—a bad lower-leg break, and he came to camp this year still favoring it—and he’s had swelling in a knee. In short, the Cards have gotten zero return so far on Cooper, and it’s no lock he’ll be healthy enough to be a big player this year … Look for a slot job sharing arrangement, obviously, with the talent at receiver here. But Arians trains his receivers to play different places. Look for Fitzgerald to play some slot this year, as he did a year ago … Isaac Sopoaga has been impressive this week at the nose, and the Cards are thinking about using him to spell Williams 10 to 15 snaps a game … The inside linebackers are in flux, due to loss of talent and injury … Bucannon is going to get on the field early and often, and he could play a nickel safety role prominently.
Best new player in camp
John Brown, wide receiver. For the reasons listed above. Talked to him after practice, and he doesn’t act like the game’s overwhelming him at this level. “I don’t look at all this,’’ he told me, motioning up to the stands and scoreboard at UofP Stadium after practice. “I worked with Carson a lot, one on one, and I just think of that when I’m out here on the field. I just concentrate on the play and not all the surroundings.” Wait till you get to Seattle, John.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
The Cards will take a step back on defense, mostly because of the loss of Washington, the one irreplaceable defender. I don’t see them being a top-10 defense again.
Something I’ve never seen before
A naked field in the morning during the walk-through practice at the far end of the domed stadium. The team worked on the 35-yard Field Turf field, while the 100-yard grass field was out in the UoP Stadium parking lot, soaking up the weather and, presumably, growing a little bit. For the 2 p.m. Pacific Time practice, the 100-yard grass field was rolled in on trays, a deal that took about an hour to put in place. And the players worked for two-and-a-half on the last day of training camp on the grass field. Portable training camp!
What I thought when I walked out of camp
High on the offense. Shaky on the front seven. If defensive coordinator Todd Bowles can plug the holes on defense and Palmer stays upright, this is a dangerous team. If not, it could be a 7-9 team.