A new era of Arizona Cardinals football has begun, with head coach Steve Wilks and quarterback Sam Bradford in their inaugural campaigns with the franchise. After an 8-8 2017 season, Wilks and Bradford's forerunners, Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer, retired after spending five years with the club.
Things didn't start off well as the Cardinals were beaten 24-6 by the Washington Redskins in Week 1, but the season still holds promise for Arizona.
While Palmer was 38 last season, he was still an effective QB. However, an injury limited him to only seven games, and the combination of Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton led the team for the rest of the year. Neither are starting-caliber players, and both now find themselves as backups elsewhere.
After Bradford spent two seasons with the Vikings, he signed a one-year, $20 million contract with Arizona in March. Bradford missed 14 games last year, and has missed 36 contests over his career. But, when he is on the field, he can be one of the NFL's best signal-callers. In 2016, he completed a then-NFL-record 71.6% of his passes, throwing 20 touchdowns to just five interceptions.
With a great running back like David Johnson to rely on, Bradford should be able to run the offense efficiently and keep a clipboard in rookie Josh Rosen's hands.
Johnson missed 15 games in 2017 with a wrist injury. He had over 2,100 offensive yards in 2016 and is one of the league's most dynamic weapons. Against Washington, Johnson carried the ball only nine times, but he did manage to score a touchdown. He should be back to his Pro Bowl form this year.
Bradford's main target will be the ageless one, Larry Fitzgerald. Despite turning 35 in August, he is coming off the ninth 1,000-yard season of his career,and is primed to bolster his Hall-of-Fame statline even more. Fitzgerald is flanked by 2017 draft pick Chad Williams and 2018 second-rounder Christian Kirk, one of this year's top slot WR prospects. J.J. Nelson is the team's deep threat, although Bradford isn't known for pushing the ball downfield like Palmer was.
Jermaine Gresham and Ricky Seals-Jones form a solid tight end duo, although Gresham missed game 1 and could be out for week 2 as well.
The offensive line is not great, and that's very worrying as both Bradford and Rosen are injury-prone. D.J. Humphries and Mike Iupati form a solid duo on the left side, and Justin Pugh is good on the right, but the two weak spots are at center and right tackle. Rookie Mason Cole mans the middle and could end up becoming a solid player, but he is unproven at this point.
There is a reason Andre Smith has not been a consistent starter aside from three seasons during his career. He has bounced around from team to team, and he currently finds himself as the starting right tackle for Arizona. However, he is now nursing an elbow injury which could force Blaine Causell into the lineup, which is not good news for Bradford, especially in Week 2 against the Los Angeles Rams' star-studded defensive line.
While the defensive unit has some key players aging, it should once again finish in the upper echelon of teams. Arizona has a solid pass rush anchored by Chandler Jones, who very quietly led the NFL in sacks last season. He lines up opposite of Markus Golden, who had 12.5 sacks in 2016.
In between are Corey Peters and Robert Nkemdiche. Nkemdiche in particular may finally be ready to realize his vast potential, and having a beastly interior pass rusher will improve the defense dramatically.
The Cardinals' outside linebackers, Deone Bucannon and Haason Reddick, are one of the most versatile duos in the league. However, Reddick's elite athleticism hasn't covered for his inexperience, as he is still learning the nuances of the pro game and remains a backup.
Josh Bynes is the starting middle linebacker and Gerald Hodges provides good depth. This linebacker group has plenty of talent but has not played up to its ability thus far.
Arizona's secondary is probably its strongest unit, even with the loss of former All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu. Patrick Peterson remains one of the league's elite cornerbacks, and he has a new running mate this season. Jamar Taylor was acquired from the Cleveland Browns and will function as the #2 CB, where he excelled in 2016.
Antoine Bethea and Budda Baker form a solid safety tandem that will only improve as Baker adjusts to the speed of the NFL. Tre Boston was a late free agency signing and will give the Cardinals an above-average starter as a backup; Boston was a top-10 FS in coverage last season for the Chargers.
2018 Cardinals Outlook
The Los Angeles Rams are expected to win the division, and for good reason. However, with the Seahawks a shell of their former selves and the 49ers still young, the Cardinals could certainly contend for a wild-card berth. Their final record will depend on Bradford's health, although if called upon, Rosen should be more than capable of leading a team.
With their QB of the future, there are bright days ahead for Arizona, but that doesn't mean they can't find success in the present.