Arizona Cardinals: 2014 NFL Training Camp Preview

Last season, the Arizona Cardinals' offense spun a tale of two halves.

It might sound cliché but the first seven games weren't anything like the final nine. The Cardinals struggled learning first-year head coach Bruce Arians' new scheme. Players lined up in the wrong places. Receivers ran wrong routes. Blockers picked up the wrong assignment. It all showed in the stats. The Cardinals topped 348 yards three times in the first seven games and Carson Palmer went over 300 yards just once. The offense didn't score more than 25 points in a game.

[+] EnlargeAndre Ellington
Jennifer Stewart/USA TODAY SportsAndre Ellington is expected to carry the Cardinals' running load left after Rashard Mendenhall retired unexpectedly.
Then everything changed. In the final nine games, Arizona totalled 348 or more yards seven times and Palmer found a rhythm, along with his teammates. It led to him having two games of more than 300 yards and two of more than 400. And the Cards' scoring went up. Arizona scored 21 or fewer points just three times while it went 7-2 to close the season.

And all Arizona did during the offseason was plug holes in the offense. The Cardinals solidified left tackle by signing Jared Veldheer. They signed tight end John Carlson and drafted Troy Niklas. They signed Ted Ginn as a third receiver and drafted speedster John Brown, who'll compete for the fourth wide receiver job. Arians has long been known as an offensive genius and those brains started to come through late last season with a cast that wasn't yet equipped to run his offense.

With a stable of tight ends that fit the mold Arians has won with for years, the Cardinals' offense will be able to run smoother than a year ago. Carlson, Niklas and Jake Ballard are block first, catch second type of players while Rob Housler will have to prove during training camp that he can transition to Arians' style. He didn't live up to expectations last season, causing the Cardinals to find tight ends who could do the job the way Arians wants it done.

The offense features a few of the more intriguing position battles in camp. Right tackle and right guard have talked about it for months now, but who will be the second running back will be equally as competitive and maybe even more entertaining to watch. Behind Andre Ellington, who's a storyline in himself this season, second-year back Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer will compete for the second and third positions. Arians said this offseason that there will be more two-back sets, meaning the second back will have more of a role this season.

Ellington takes over the starting job after Rashard Mendenhall unexpectedly retired in March but in his second year, the main question surrounding Ellington is this: Can he handle a full running load?

The battle at right tackle will continue to be between Bobby Massie and Bradley Sowell. Paul Fanaika is the incumbent at right guard while Earl Watford, who's entering his second season, is looking to unseat him. Center is the most stable position on the offensive line as Lyle Sendlein enters his eighth season. The left side, although talented, is coming off injuries. Guard Jonathan Cooper hasn't played a down in the NFL yet and Jared Veldheer played in just five games last season.

Arizona's 41 sacks allowed were tied for 18th best in the NFL but there's room for and reason to believe there will be improvement. With a sturdy presence at left tackle, the Cardinals won't have to use a tight end as an extra blocker this season, freeing them up to become another option for Palmer.

Yet again, the wide receivers have become a sign of stability for Arizona despite Larry Fitzgerald entering his 11th season. He's still be the Cardinals go-to option in the passing game but after a breakout season in 2013, Michael Floyd will force defenses to pay attention to him. And with the added speed of Ginn and Brown, the passing game will have more options than a year ago.

Camp will also feature a fast competition for fourth and fifth receiver spots. Brown may be among the leaders in the clubhouse because of an impressive offseason but Jaron Brown, Dan Buckner and Brittan Golden -- all returning receivers -- won't go down without a fight. Add in rookie Walt Powell to the mix, and Arians will have his pick of a fast group.

Camp preview: Arizona Cardinals

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
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NFL Nation's Josh Weinfuss examines the three biggest issues facing the Arizona Cardinals heading into training camp.

Replacing Washington: Losing Daryl Washington to at least a yearlong suspension before training camp was the only positive that came out of the ordeal. It gave the Cardinals time to process the loss and figure out how to replace him. But that’s easier said than done. One starter is locked in: Kevin Minter. The other? Well, that’s up in the air and might take all seven weeks of training camp and preseason to determine. Arizona’s options aren’t just thin, they’re older as well, meaning the Cardinals don’t have another three-down linebacker who can seamlessly replace Washington. The battle next to Minter will begin with Larry Foote, Ernie Sims and Lorenzo Alexander. Foote, coach Bruce Arians said, can play as many as two downs. Sims didn’t impress during offseason work. And Alexander is still recovering from a Lisfranc injury. Don’t be surprised if the starter at inside linebacker for “Monday Night Football” in Week 1 isn’t running conditioning sprints on the first day of camp. Arizona doesn’t want just another body at inside linebacker –- although that’s what they might have to settle for -– they want to replace Washington’s speed, size and agility. And that likely won't might not happen.

Right tackle: Arizona thought it would end organized team activities and minicamp with a better idea -– if not a clear-cut idea -– of their starting right tackle. All that was determined? If combined, Bobby Massie and Bradley Sowell would be the team’s ideal tackle. Individually, however, neither blew coaches away. Both still will have a chance to win the job during training camp, although, like at inside linebacker, the starting right tackle might not be on the roster. Massie has an advantage in size and experience, having started at right tackle for the entire 2012 season. He was replaced last year by Eric Winston, who the Cardinals haven’t re-signed but is being considered for the job. Massie’s ability to retain the playbook has come into question throughout his stay in Arizona and was again at the forefront of the conversation during the offseason. Sowell has experience on both sides of the line, but more so as a left tackle, where he started for the final 12 games last season. His fundamentals were lacking at times throughout the offseason. It won’t be surprising if neither Massie nor Sowell start the season at right tackle.

Avoid a plateau: Around Week 8 last season, the proverbial light bulb went on for almost everyone in the Cardinals' locker room. It seemed like overnight, Arizona went from a confused offense that wasn’t progressing to a unit that begin firing on all cylinders for the final half of the season. It led the Cardinals to a 6-2 finish and a 10-6 overall record while missing a playoff bid in the final weekend of the season. In order to return to double-digit wins, Arizona needs to continue to build offensively. The Cardinals need to avoid a plateau and continue evolving offensively, especially with new pieces such as Ted Ginn, John Brown, John Carlson and Troy Niklas having large roles and returning running back Andre Ellington inheriting Arizona’s starting running back job after Rashard Mendenhall retired. Arians is an offensive genius, but with every season comes new players, which means there’ll always be a span of practice that’s dedicated to learning the offense in detail. Arizona just can’t let that stretch into the regular season. Any kinks need to be ironed out during camp, and the Cardinals need to finish training camp ready to roll.