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Shutdown Countdown: Arizona Cardinals ... good team, wrong division

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(Yahoo Sports)

(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

The Arizona Cardinals had a nice 2013 season.

For the first time this decade, they had a winning season. They finished 10-6 and their season included a win at Seattle. Arizona was the only team to win there all season. The defense was strong, and had a breakout rookie in safety Tyrann Mathieu. The offense got a fine sophomore season from receiver Michael Floyd and should feel good about his future.

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Tyrann Mathieu (USA Today Sports Images)

Tyrann Mathieu (USA Today Sports Images)

And the problem last year is the same problem they face this year: The Cardinals play in the toughest division in football.

Arizona, whose 10 wins weren't good enough to qualify for the playoffs, is the first NFC West team to make an appearance on our countdown, and it's at No. 15 (yes, we're high on the Rams). We think the Cardinals are a top 15 NFL team, and a last place team too. That tells you something about the NFC West. Not only are the Cardinals in a tough division, but also the NFC has many quality wild-card contenders. If Arizona was in the AFC, it would probably be an easy playoff pick.

The situation in Arizona isn't bleak, there's just a massive challenge because of the schedule. There is a lot of good talent Mathieu, Floyd, running back Andre Ellington, receiver Larry Fitzgerald, defensive linemen Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell and cornerback Patrick Peterson and a good coaching staff. The Cardinals should feel pretty good about where the franchise is right now. They have a good team.

It's just in the wrong division.

2013 review in less than 25 words: After a 3-4 start, Arizona won seven of eight games. The Cardinals' season ended with a last-second loss to the 49ers.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: It was probably a little better before Daryl Washington got himself suspended. Signing Jared Veldheer from the Raiders fixes a left tackle situation that has seemingly been in flux since the Cardinals played in Chicago. Antonio Cromartie is overrated, but he's not a bad No. 2 next to Peterson. Losing linebacker Karlos Dansby hurts, as did losing solid third receiver Andre Roberts. But the Washington suspension is a big one. Washington is one of the best playmaking linebackers in the NFL and he's out for the year after violating the substance-abuse policy again. That's a massive loss. Big enough that we have to say the roster is worse than last year.

Best offseason acquisition: The Raiders didn't give Veldheer the franchise tag, allowing the 27-year-old to hit the open market. He signed a five-year, $35 million deal with Arizona, which is not an outrageous deal for a left tackle in his prime. Veldheer isn't one of the game's elite left tackles, but he's pretty good and surely better than what the Cardinals have had. If guard Jonathan Cooper, the seventh overall pick of last year's draft, is over a broken leg that cost him the entire 2013 season (and he's still not 100 percent, so there's some question if he'll be back to his old self this season), the left side of the Cardinals' line will be much better.

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Carson Palmer (USA Today Sports Images)

Carson Palmer (USA Today Sports Images)

Achilles heel: The last time Carson Palmer had a rating above 86 or finished in the top 10 of the NFL in that category was 2006. He finished two spots behind Donovan McNabb and one spot ahead of Marc Bulger ... so yeah, it has been quite a while since Palmer was a good NFL quarterback. He's the league's "good enough" quarterback, doing just enough to keep getting a starting job, but never enough to be above average. That's why the Raiders' trade of a first-round pick and a second-round pick that turned into Giovani Bernard to the Bengals is one of the worst ever. Palmer isn't worth anywhere near that, and hasn't been since Shawne Merriman was leading the NFL in sacks. The Cardinals, who don't have a clear quarterback of the future on the roster, will go forth with 34-year-old Palmer, hoping that he doesn't turn from an average-at-best quarterback to a bad one overnight.

Position in flux: Like left tackle, it seems like the Cardinals have been searching forever for a good tight end. The last time the Cardinals had a Pro Bowl tight end was Jackie Smith in 1970. There were high hopes for Rob Housler, but he has one touchdown in three seasons. This year, the Cardinals took Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas in the second round, a sign that it's now or never for Housler. John Carlson was signed, but his apparent breakout season of 2009 hasn't been duplicated. The Cardinals hope someone emerges at tight end, though breaking that Pro Bowl drought this season is unlikely.

Ready to break out: The Cardinals are taking a leap with linebacker Kevin Minter, a 2013 second-round pick who played just one defensive snap last season. He'll replace Dansby at inside linebacker, and with Washington gone, it will be necessary for him to replace some of the big plays Washington made as well. It remains to be seen if he is good enough in coverage to be an effective all-around linebacker, as Dansby was, but he was a good college player at LSU and will get every opportunity to break through with the Cardinals this year.

Stat fact: Andre Ellington's 5.5-yard average was the best in the NFL among players with at least 100 rushing attempts last season, easily beating Donald Brown's 5.3-yard average. The Cardinals gave 217 carries to the incredibly ineffective Rashard Mendenhall because they didn't think Ellington was durable enough. At least, I guess that's the reason. I still can't make sense of it. Anyway, Mendenhall is gone, and Ellington will get way more than the 118 carries he had last year. The average has to go down with more carries, but it's not unrealistic to believe that Ellington can be a very good back now that he'll get the full share of carries he should have gotten last year.

Schedule degree of difficulty: The games against the NFC West will be tough, and it's not easy to have the AFC West on the schedule either. Arizona's final 10 games are against teams that finished .500 or better last season, with the exception of the Rams (and we know how good they might be) and the Falcons, who were 13-3 just two seasons ago.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: You'd have to be tremendously optimistic to believe the Cardinals' ceiling is higher than a wild-card spot. A lot of things would have to fall into place for the Cardinals to pass the 49ers and Seahawks. Yet, a wild-card spot is a fair goal, considering how close Arizona came last year. They'll need to coax another non-terrible year from Palmer and the defense will have to remain at a high level despite losing Dansby and Washington, but it's feasible.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: The defense should keep the Cardinals from slipping too far. But if Ellington can't hold up and Palmer slips a bit, the offense won't be playoff caliber. Given how tough the schedule will be, it wouldn't take much of a bad-luck turn for the Cardinals to post a losing record.

The crystal ball says: When all is said and done, I don't believe that Palmer will suddenly be an above-average quarterback for the first time since 2006. He limits how good the Cardinals can be. He probably won't be so bad the Cardinals will fall off the map, but he won't carry the team anywhere either. Given that the team lost two fantastic linebackers and Mathieu will be working back from an ACL tear, the defense could very well be a little worse. Arizona will be a tough out every week, but against this schedule, they won't be making the playoffs.

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs
18. Baltimore Ravens
17. Detroit Lions
16. San Diego Chargers
15. Arizona Cardinals

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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