2018 NFL Preview: Cardinals start a brand new era with Josh Rosen and Steve Wilks

Shutdown Corner

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The Arizona Cardinals kicked off an NFC championship game in Charlotte on Jan. 24, 2016, only 29 months ago.

It seems like a generation has passed since then. The Carolina Panthers swarmed the Cardinals in the first quarter, went to Super Bowl 50, and a couple years later the Cardinals are expected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL. The speed in which the NFL world moves is unfair.

When Las Vegas oddsmakers posted their season win totals for 2018, the consensus lines have two teams at the bottom with 5.5 wins: the Cleveland Browns and Cardinals. Quarterback Carson Palmer retired, and so did coach Bruce Arians. Tyrann Mathieu, who for a flash was one of the best defensive players in the NFL, was cut for salary-cap reasons. There are still some big names remaining from the 2015 team that nearly went to the Super Bowl, but these Cardinals look a lot different.

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The Cardinals still have elite talent. David Johnson, who missed almost all of last season with a wrist injury, is one of the NFL’s best backs. Patrick Peterson is a Hall-of-Fame cornerback, and Chandler Jones is one of the best pass rushers in the league. Larry Fitzgerald, another future Hall of Famer, had 1,156 yards at age 34.

That’s a good base, but it’s a new era in Arizona. Former Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks takes over as coach, promising change on both sides of the ball. He wants to run the ball more, a thought that goes counter to modern NFL thinking and will be a heck of a culture change from Arians’ deep-passing ways. The Cardinals will also shift from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3. The Cardinals’ defense was good last season, finishing fourth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, but it’s being overhauled with Wilks.

Not to mention, their quarterback is brand new. The Cardinals did what every quarterback-desperate team in the 2010s seems destined to do: They overpaid Sam Bradford because they panicked. Then Arizona caught a break in the draft when Josh Rosen slipped, and it wasn’t too expensive to go up and draft him 10th overall.

Rosen brings a desirable chip on his shoulder after falling in the draft.

“I was angry. I was really angry,” Rosen said in an interview with Westwood One Sports on draft night. “One, two and three went through, and I was really pissed off. But for some reason, the second I got that call, all of that went away and motivation stepped in.

“They made nine mistakes ahead of me, and I couldn’t be more excited to prove them all wrong.”

If Rosen can channel that, his “nine mistakes” comment will become legend. If not, it’ll end up more like Johnny Manziel proclaiming he was ready to “wreck this league” on draft night. But Rosen has the talent to make the Cardinals look smart.

We knew the Cardinals’ rise under Arians had an expiration date. Palmer was on the back nine of his career, Fitzgerald has flirted with retirement the past couple years and Arians had health issues. Still, it’s startling how quickly it came and went. Arizona was one step from playing for a title, then went 15-16-1 the next two seasons. This year, they are undergoing a transformation.

Just a reminder: If your favorite NFL team is good, enjoy it. It can turn quickly.

Josh Rosen, left, stands next to coach Steve Wilks at Rosen’s introductory news conference after the NFL draft. (AP)
Josh Rosen, left, stands next to coach Steve Wilks at Rosen’s introductory news conference after the NFL draft. (AP)

The Cardinals made two of the better value picks in the draft, with Josh Rosen at No. 10 and receiver Christian Kirk in the second round. Kirk should seamlessly replace Larry Fitzgerald whenever Fitzgerald decides to step away, and NFL Films’ Greg Cosell thought Rosen was the best quarterback in this class. Center Mason Cole was a good third-round pick, too. The rest of the offseason wasn’t so kind. Signing guard Justin Pugh was fine, but they’ll regret overpaying Sam Bradford because everybody regrets overpaying Bradford. It was sad to see Tyrann Mathieu go. And for all his ups and downs, Carson Palmer made the Cardinals a (fleeting) contender. The Cardinals are restarting, but the draft was a good step.

GRADE: B-

Steve Wilks has some pieces to work with on defense. Cornerback Patrick Peterson and pass rusher Chandler Jones are All-Pro candidates. Linebackers Deone Bucannon and Haason Reddick are impressive athletes, and pass rusher Markus Golden had 12.5 sacks two years ago when healthy. How will the pieces fit going from a 3-4 to 4-3? Will Jones and Golden still thrive as ends? Can Bucannon and Reddick make plays as outside linebackers? But there is talent; the defense carried a poor offense to an 8-8 record last season.

It seems like the Cardinals have been searching forever for a cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson. They squeezed a surprisingly good year out of Tramon Williams last year, but Williams is gone. And there’s no proven replacement. Brandon Williams, a 2016 third-round pick who played one snap on defense all last season, seems to be the favorite to start. Arizona didn’t draft a corner before the sixth round. Veteran Bene Benwikere might win the job, but he has just 14 starts in four seasons. If the Cardinals can’t figure out that position it lessens the impact of having a great talent like Peterson; teams will avoid him and relentlessly pick on the other cornerback.

The Cardinals have said Sam Bradford is the starter, though there will be a competition between Bradford and Josh Rosen. History says Rosen will start at some point. Since 2006, the year after Aaron Rodgers was picked by the Green Bay Packers, only two first-round quarterbacks (Jake Locker and Brady Quinn) didn’t start at least one game as a rookie. That’s 27 of the past 29 first-round quarterbacks who got at least one start. Considering Rosen is the quarterback of Arizona’s future and the Cardinals don’t look like playoff contenders, you have to assume the team wants Rosen to start as soon as possible. It wouldn’t be entirely shocking if that happens by Week 1.

There are plenty of candidates, but David Johnson tops the list. In 2016 he was one of the best players in football, an NFL offensive player of the year candidate after posting 2,218 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns. When Johnson’s 2017 season ended after just 17 touches due to a wrist injury, the offense suffered. And the Cardinals still have one of the steepest drops from starting tailback to backup in the NFL. Johnson, who wants a new contract and skipped minicamp to make a statement, will be the focal point of Steve Wilks’ run-first approach if he’s healthy. If he’s hurt again, Arizona doesn’t have Plan B.

From Yahoo’s Dalton Del Don: “David Johnson is an easy top-three pick. He’s coming off a season-ending injury, but it happened in Week 1 and was to his wrist. So Johnson enters with fresh legs in his prime, having totaled 2,118 yards with 80 catches and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2016. Johnson is the league’s most dangerous receiving back by a mile, and he’ll be the centerpiece of an offense relying on newcomer (and brittle) Sam Bradford or rookie Josh Rosen at QB behind an offensive line that looks improved. There’s some risk using such a high pick on someone who played just 75 snaps last season, but Johnson offers as much fantasy upside as any player in the NFL.”

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Football analyst Warren Sharp annually calculates strength of schedule using Las Vegas’ projected win totals for each team, which is a much better way of predicting SOS than looking at last year’s records. Sharp found that the toughest projected schedule in the NFL this season belongs to Arizona. For a team undergoing a lot of changes, that’s bad news.

HOW LONG CAN LARRY FITZGERALD KEEP DOING THIS?

Nobody knows when Fitzgerald will retire. There were rumors 2016 would be his last season, and Fitzgerald is still going two years later. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this is it, or if he keeps playing after this season. He could play, and play well, beyond this season if he wants to.

One of my favorite stats of the offseason was this: Rotoworld’s Evan Silva noted that Fitzgerald’s average yards of separation actually improved last season: 2.4 yards in 2016 to 2.6 in 2017. Yes, he was better at getting open at age 34 than he was the year before. Fitzgerald’s move to the slot has rejuvenated his career. The past two seasons he has 216 catches, 2,179 yards and 12 touchdowns. His numbers improved across the board last season. There are only 17 instances of a 35-year-old receiver posting 1,000 yards, according to Pro Football Reference, and the great Jerry Rice has three of those spots. Don’t count out Fitzgerald being the 18th. Maybe the 19th in 2019, too.

Let’s get really, really optimistic. The Cardinals went a respectable 8-8 last year and while there’s a new quarterback, it’s not like those seven starts by Carson Palmer last season were magical. David Johnson’s return can’t be understated. It’s hard to say Steve Wilks is better than two-time NFL coach of the year Bruce Arians, but he might be, and a new voice often invigorates a team. If everything comes together – someone emerges as a productive quarterback, Johnson looks like he did in 2016, the Cardinals’ stars on defense take to the scheme change, Wilks is a coaching dynamo – Arizona could stay in the playoff race for a long time.

The offense could struggle. The Cardinals will presumably have a rookie quarterback at some point, a bad offensive line, no backup to David Johnson and at some point Larry Fitzgerald will look like he’s in his mid-30s. Then if there’s a tough transition to a new defense and a rookie head coach makes rookie mistakes (perhaps something like promoting a run-first foundation on offense in a pass-first NFL world), it’s easy to see how this could get very ugly. There’s a reason the Cardinals’ win total is just 5.5.

The Cardinals will find a way to crawl past that 5.5-win mark despite a tough schedule because they have some true superstars. But the fringes of the roster need work, and it’s alarming Steve Wilks believes the best way to win in 2018 is to run the ball more. What has happened to the Cards happens to most non-Patriots teams in the NFL: You make a run at the ultimate prize, and the bill comes due sometime soon after. The Cardinals are starting over with the Wilks-Josh Rosen nucleus, and it will take at least a couple years to rise again.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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