NFL season preview 2017: Arizona Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald are both running out of time to win a championship. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the month leading up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 7. Today, the Arizona Cardinals.

Head coach: Bruce Arians
Last season’s record: 7-8-1
Playoff result: Did not qualify

Key free agent gains: Phil Dawson has replaced the frustrating Chandler Catanzaro as Arizona’s kicker, and Cardinals fans will be hoping the 42-year-old can stabilize the position and be more reliable late in games.

Arizona also brought in a pair of veteran defenders in Antoine Bethea and Karlos Dansby. Both players are well out of their primes, but could still be meaningful contributors on the James Bettcher–led defence that allowed the second-fewest yards per game in 2016.

Key free agent losses: The Cardinals’ biggest loss of the off-season was standout defensive end Calais Campbell, who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency. The two-time Pro Bowler was one of the rocks of the Arizona defence, and his departure will hurt both on the field and in the locker-room.

Another big blow was losing Kevin Minter to the Cincinnati Bengals. Minter started all 32 games over the past two seasons at middle linebacker, developing the mental fortitude needed to play that cerebral position.

In the secondary, Arizona will have to fill holes left by the exits of D.J. Swearinger and Tony Jefferson. Of course, having the likes of Patrick Peterson in the defensive backfield can cover up some deficiencies.

Key draft picks: First-round pick Haason Reddick out of Temple profiles as a difference-making linebacker and should make an immediate impact in the front seven. How’s this for expectations: Bruce Arians says Reddick’s best comparable is Von Miller. Not bad. He’ll also have Dansby around to help groom him, which can only help his development.

In the second round, the Cardinals went with another defensive player who could contribute immediately in Washington safety Budda Baker. The 21-year-old gives the defence the type of versatility that allows it to change schemes without having to substitute players. The organization clearly thinks highly of Baker, trading up nine spots to draft him.

X-factor: Health. After a 13-3 season in 2015, the Cardinals laid an egg last year. Two oft-injured players in particular will have to stay on the field if Arizona wants to contend. On offence, the aging Carson Palmer will have to take fewer than the 40 sacks he endured last season and lift a good chunk of the burden off all-pro running back David Johnson, who led the NFL in yards from scrimmage in 2016.

Defensively, the Cardinals will be crossing their fingers that safety Tyrann Mathieu can turn in his first full season in the pros. When healthy, the man they call ‘Honey Badger’ is one of the best safeties in the league. Unfortunately for Cardinals fans, Mathieu has already been on injured reserve three times over his four-year career.

2017 will be a success if: Arizona can go on a deep playoff run. At 37 years of age, this could very realistically be Palmer’s last kick at the can. Larry Fitzgerald isn’t getting any younger and deserves a ring to go along with his Hall of Fame stats. Johnson is in his prime and is established as one of the league’s best weapons. With a strong defence in place, the Cardinals need to strike before the window of opportunity closes.