NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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Catch us if you can.

That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.

It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.

By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.

It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?

The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.

First Down

The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?


Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.

Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.

Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.

Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.


Second Down

The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?


Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.

Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.

Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.


Third Down

Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?


Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.

Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.

Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.

Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.


Fourth Down

If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?


Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.

Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.

Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.

Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.

 
As I went through the most recent renditionInsider of ESPN NFL Draft Insider Mel Kiper Jr.’s mock draft, I began to think about Arizona’s relationship with quarterbacks in the first round of the draft.

And after I began researching it, I noticed the two don't get along in the long-term.

Kiper has the Cardinals selecting Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr at 20th in the first round. It’s unlikely – alright, very unlikely – that the Cardinals pick a signal-caller that early. If it happens, however, it’ll be the first time since Arizona picked Matt Leinart 10th in 2006 that the Cardinals went with a quarterback in the first round.

We all know how that turned out.

Leinart assumed the starting role in Week 5 and led the Cardinals for 11 weeks before he suffered a sprained left shoulder in Week 16. He was replaced for the season finale by Kurt Warner. In his rookie season, Leinart threw for 2,547 yards, 12 interceptions and 11 touchdowns but his career would never reach the same heights. During the next three seasons with the Cardinals, Leinart started just six games while watching Warner go through a career resurgence, leading Arizona to the Super Bowl in the process.

Besides Leinart, the Cardinals have picked six quarterbacks in the first round since 1954: Kelly Stouffer sixth overall in 1987, Steve Pisarkiewicz (19th) in 1977, Joe Namath (12th) in 1965, George Izo (2nd) in 1960, King Hill (bonus) in 1958 and Lamar McHan (1st) in 1954.

Stouffer, now an ESPN college football analyst, never played for the then-St. Louis Cardinals after holding out during the 1987 season over failed contract negotiations and was traded to the Seattle Seahawks in 1988.

Pisarkiewicz spent two seasons with the Cardinals, playing just nine games while starting four of them. He totaled 804 yards and three touchdowns with the Cards before finishing his career with the Green Bay Packers in 1980.

Namath was drafted by two teams in 1965 – the Cardinals of the NFL and first overall by the New York Jets of the AFL. He chose to head to the Big Apple, never donning a Cardinals uniform, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Izo was in the same boat as Namath -- he was even drafted by the New York Titans before they became the Jets -- but chose to play in the established league rather than the upstart AFL. He played in two games for the Cardinals, starting one of them, before re-injuring his knee. He missed the rest of the season and was traded the next season to Washington.

Hill spent three seasons with the Cardinals – two in Chicago and one in St. Louis. In 1959, his seasons, he started 11 of 12 games for the Cardinals, throwing 1,015 yards and seven touchdowns against 13 interceptions. He started just one game in 1960 before going on to play in Philadelphia.

McHan has been the longest tenured quarterback drafted in the first round by the Cardinals franchise. In five seasons -- 1954-1958 -- he started 50 of 60 games and threw for 6,578 yards, 50 touchdowns and 77 interceptions.

History doesn’t lie. A quarterback drafted in the first round by the Cardinals doesn’t have a likelihood of succeeding.
With every mock draft, the needs for the Arizona Cardinals appear to be changing.

In his Mock 4.0, ESPN Draft Insider Mel Kiper throws a curveball -- he has the Cardinals preparing for the future at 20th in May's NFL draft.


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The first month of free agency has passed and the numbers show who has been busy since March 11.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Seattle Seahawks have $15.8 million left in cap space -- that’s more than $10 million more than the next most cap space in the NFC West, which belongs to the St. Louis Rams.

Here’s a look at how the four teams stack up against the salary cap:

 
The first month of free agency in 2013 was decidedly busier than the first month this year, but the Arizona Cardinals went more for quality over quantity in 2014.

Arians
Arians
Since March 11 the Cardinals have signed seven players, including three who are penciled in as starters: Jared Veldheer, Ted Ginn and Antonio Cromartie.

In the first month last season, Arizona went on a signing binge to restock a roster in the mold of then-recently hired coach Bruce Arians. They inked four full-time starters during the opening month, including Carson Palmer, Rashard Mendenhall, Yeremiah Bell and Jerraud Powers. During that haul, the Cardinals also signed Lorenzo Alexander, a starter until a Lisfranc injury sidelined him in Week 3, as well as his replacement, Matt Shaughnessy who started 12 games. Former linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who started three games in place of Daryl Washington, was also signed.

Last year's signings during the opening month of free agency helped fill out the roster. Despite the flurry of additions, Arizona went 10-6 and barely missed the playoffs. A lot of those signings also laid the foundation of this less aggressive, more pragmatic approach to 2014.

The Cardinals didn't need to fill a bevy of holes and were able to focus on their needs, hence just three major signings compared to the slew in 2013.

Each year provides a building block for the next and that's what the busy 2013 did for 2014.

Here's a list of new signings from the first month of free agency in 2013 and 2014.

2014: LT Jared Veldheer, WR/KR Ted Ginn, CB Antonio Cromartie, RB Jonathan Dwyer, OL Ted Larsen, CB Eddie Whitley, CB LeQuan Lewis.

2013: QB Carson Palmer (traded for), RB Rashard Mendenhall, QB Drew Standon, DE Frostee Rucker, CB Antoine Cason, DE Matt Shaughnessy, S Yeremiah Bell, CB Lorenzo Alexander, CG Jerraud Powers, G Chilo Rachal, P Will Batson, CB Bryan McCann, S Curtis Taylor, S Jonathon Amaya.
It has been a month since the frenzy started, but now there’s a different kind of buzz surrounding the Arizona Cardinals.

Ayodele
Veldheer
Cromartie
Free agency began one month ago and with just a few select moves, the Cardinals have put themselves at the forefront of the conversation about contenders this coming season. The addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer was Arizona’s prize piece of the 2014 class and he’ll anchor an offensive line that continues to be rebuilt.

For the first time since Arizona drafted Levi Brown in 2007, the Cardinals have promise on the quarterback’s blind side -- the only difference is that Veldheer is a proven commodity.

Compared to 2013, this free-agency haul was chosen to fill specific needs, where as last year the Cardinals were looking to quickly revamp a roster to fit then-newly hired Bruce Arians' style. After a surprising run last season to a 10-6 record and the brink of the playoffs, the Cardinals saw exactly where their deficiencies were and set out to address them.

Arizona signed seven players in the first month of free agency, but three will have instant and significant impacts on the field come September. Veldheer is one, as is Arizona’s second major signing of the season, wide receiver and kick returner Ted Ginn.

Ginn was a two-for-one signing, replacing third receiver Andre Roberts and kick returner Javier Arenas. While Roberts is younger, Ginn may be more dangerous than both of those players. His return skills alone was worth his signing, but he’s proven himself as a receiver throughout his career and won’t have the pressure of being a primary option with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd ahead of him on the depth chart.

The last major piece of the first month of free agency was the surprise addition of cornerback Antonio Cromartie. He instantly supplanted Jerraud Powers as the starter across from Patrick Peterson, giving the Cardinals one of the most formidable secondaries in the NFL.

Arizona also added two quality backups in running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen. Recently, the Cards signed cornerbacks LeQuan Lewis and Eddie Whitley to add competition to the cornerbacks room.

All told, Arizona’s signings put them in the thick of the 2014 playoff race. Yes, it’s April and yes, the NFL hasn’t even begun to practice yet. But on paper, the Cardinals filled needs that could be the difference between the seventh spot and a wild-card berth -- or even an NFC West crown should the chips fall in the right places.

The Cardinals only have a couple of needs left to fill before training camp begins, but with the way general manager Steve Keim combs through the waiver wire and is dedicated in his draft evaluations, finding a safety and right tackle is inevitable.

Unlike last season, when after the first month of free agency, there were still a lot of question marks about how the roster was going to shape up, the sense around the Cardinals’ 2014 edition is that free agency made Arizona better.
Eric WinstonAP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerEric Winston becomes the president of the NFL Players Association during labor peace, but with plenty to resolve.

Four years ago, this would be a different conversation.

It would be about millionaires versus billionaires, about how one document will shape the course of professional football for the next decade and how Eric Winston would be the face of the future of the sport.

Fortunately for Winston, the former Arizona Cardinals right tackle who was recently elected president of the NFL Players Association, he doesn't have to worry about that. He doesn't have to worry about his constituents being locked out by the owners or sitting down at the negotiating table to hammer out a collective bargaining agreement. His two-year tenure begins amid labor peace, allowing Winston to spend most his time this offseason on specific issues that face the players and the game.

Timing is everything.

"Yes and no," Winston said. "I think in those negotiations, that's where you're going to accomplish a lot. I think that's where you're getting, whether it's benefits, whether it's salary, whether it's health and safety, all those are up for grabs at that point.

"With a lot of that stuff being settled I can focus in on some topics, and focus on and find out what's hurting our players today and what are the few things we can do right now that can improve the lives of all of our players. I think that's kind of my mission, so to speak."

Winston's mission, to serve as the collective voice of the players, came about with a simple question.

"Would you be interested in running?" Winston said.

He was at the bi-annual NFLPA meetings when the question was posed. If he was nominated, Winston said, he'd run. It didn't take long for someone at the meetings to follow protocol. A speech later and Winston was the new face -- clean shaven after a season of growing out a hockey playoff-like beard -- of the players' association.

"It happened fast, that's for sure," Winston said. "I'm happy it happened. I'm eager to try to make a difference."

[+] EnlargeEric Winston
Michael Starghill, Jr. for ESPNEric Winston wants to "find out what's hurting our players today and what are the few things we can do right now that can improve the lives of all of our players. I think that's kind of my mission."
Whether he knows it or not, Winston's already made a difference. And it's built an air of confidence from his side of the table and the other.

Cardinals linebacker Lorenzo Alexander knew Winston but never spent much time around the hulking right tackle. After spending last season with him, Alexander, who's been an NFLPA player rep and was voted onto the current association's executive committee, believes the NFLPA has the right leader.

"He has great leadership qualities and I think a great grasp on the vision he has for the PA," Alexander said. "I think all those things really help him as far as moving forward and strengthening our union as a whole and the perception, I guess, internally and externally from the players."

The perception of Winston was built two years ago, when he was protecting Matt Cassel's strong side for the Kansas City Chiefs. Winston showed everyone -- thanks to countless replays -- that he's more than a big, burly blocker. After Cassel was knocked out of a game against Baltimore and booed by Chiefs fans, Winston verbalized his frustration with the fans and his disdain for their gesture. As Winston's voice rose, his passion for the sport filled the locker room.

Troy Vincent, recently appointed NFL executive vice president for football operations, is also a former NFLPA president. He thinks Winston's passion is only part of the reason he will succeed.

"That says a lot about who an individual is," Vincent said. "I think he's going to be a great leader.

"I know what it takes to be elected. That's not a given and I think he's going to be a fine leader. He's very thoughtful. I think Eric is also very reasonable. I think at that position it has to be balanced to get things done, where you're not always going to agree on everything but you got to find a common ground that works for everybody and I think, with his experience, I think with his values, I think he's going to be a very good leader for the union."

Assuming the presidency at a time of labor peace gives Winston the opportunity to focus on the players. Winston can lean on the experience of eight NFL seasons of serving as part of three different organizations and apply it to make the difference he's seeking.

The question Winston has to answer first: Where to start?

His overarching goal is to improve the day-to-day lives of the nearly 2,000 players in the NFL, but to do that, Winston understands he has nearly 2,000 different sets of issues to tackle. Each player has his own concerns about the direction of the league and his own career, but Winston has narrowed his first set of priorities to three areas: health and safety, financial literacy and working conditions.

When it comes to health and safety, Winston, who's second among active tackles in consecutive games played and started, thinks looking toward the future can help players now. Continuing to invest in technology and research is a priority, Winston said, because it'll help the league and its players learn more about the health and safety issues that they face on a daily basis, namely head injuries.

[+] EnlargeEric Winston
AP Photo/Greg TrottEric Winston has played eight NFL seasons with three different organizations.
"Doing that now is going to help the guys when they become former players and I think it's going to help the research side of it and it's going to help our former players now that have been suffering," Winston said.

Having watched thousands of players come and go during his career, Winston is also placing an emphasis on teaching players -- young and old -- the importance of taking care of their finances.

"Guys need to understand how to budget, guys need to understand what it means to have a mortgage, what it means to pay something like that, what does the typical cost of living [look like]?" Winston said. "It sounds cliché but those checks are going to run out at some point. They're not always going to be there and what is really enough, so-to-speak, to retire on? And, in a way, [I want to] get that word ‘retire' out of the lexicon. You play 10 years and you're 32. There's other things you could do, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't have a nest egg, you shouldn't have something you can fall back on if you can't play that long."

Winston also wants to address work-place conditions, especially when it comes to the locker rooms.

A year ago at this time, Tampa Bay's locker room hadn't been infected by the MRSA outbreak, which occurred in October, nor had the situation in Miami involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin been exposed. Both will help shape the way Winston approaches changes in the locker rooms, albeit in extremely different ways.

"Working conditions are something that's going to be coming up and we have to do something," Winston said. "I think there needs to be some standardization throughout the NFL and of course, you never know what's going to happen around the corner."

When it comes to approaching the locker room culture, which has come under siege since reports of bullying in the Dolphins' organization were revealed in November, Winston believes his experience in the league is a bonus. But he's careful to warn that what happened in Miami isn't permeating through the NFL.

"I always think you're going to have something that's out of your control," Winston said. "You're always going to have a ‘bad apple,' something that just happens. For whatever reason it happens and obviously it needs to be fixed.

"It's a challenge for all of us," Winston added. "We're professionals now. We got to act professionally. We can't be doing immature things."

Vincent wants to make sure he and Winston work together to "preserve our game."

"Have we forgotten the art of sportsmanship?" Vincent asked.

Vincent foresees working together to educate "all audiences" on eliminating facets of the game that either lead to injury or cast a negative light on the league, such as "harmful" plays.

Another one of Winston's priorities is curbing fines, an interesting dynamic since Vincent is the man responsible for assigning the fines. Winston would like to see fines eliminated for first-time incidental offenses. He thinks they should be levied for a second or third offense.

[+] EnlargeTroy Vincent
AP Photo/Doug Benc"When you watch him, when you look at his demeanor, you see how he answers questions, he's very thoughtful," NFL Executive Vice President for Football Operations Troy Vincent said of Eric Winston. "Frankly, I think he's going to do a phenomenal job."
"I know plenty of guys that whether you fine them $5,000 or $15,000, it's the same him," Winston said. "They get it. I don't think we have to fine guys an extraordinary amount to get their attention.

"They understand the value of money and what it means to them. To get the fines going up at a rate, it doesn't make sense. It seems much more punitive, more than sending a message."

Winston will also help usher in a new era for the NFL when it welcomes its first openly gay player; Missouri's Michael Sam is expected to be drafted in May. The league, Winston said, is more ready than it gets credit for, mainly because this generation of players -- even on the older side -- is more accepting than previous generations.

One issue Winston said the players won't accept, though, is an 18-game schedule.

"I just don't see how that would ever make sense for us," Winston said.

"I don't think there's a need for it. I don't think there's a want for it. There's not a lot of scenarios that I'd say, 18 games in that context make sense. I just don't understand why that would make sense for our players and our guys."

While it's still early, there's an outside chance Winston may not play in any of the 16 games next season. He's been a free agent since March 11. But he's not fretting. Last season, Winston didn't sign with the Cardinals until the first day of training camp.

If Winston isn't signed for the 2014 season, he'll still hold onto his role as president. He'll just have more time on his hands to advocate for the players. Vincent would know. He was the NFLPA president for a year after retiring following the 2006 season and spent it criss-crossing the country, meeting with players, listening to their issues and helping them when called upon. Winston is ready for the responsibility if his career should go that way, but he'd rather be on the field.

Winston admits he has plenty to learn. He's served on NFLPA committees and understands the politics and policies, but has never held a role comparable to this.

Even though Vincent has crossed over to the league, he still offered a piece of advice to Winston: Listen. Vincent told him he doesn't need to have every answer, but he needs to be a great listener.

The more he listens, the more Winston will learn about his constituents. And the better president he'll become.

"You got to have balance," Vincent said. "There's a reason you have to be able to make sure that you're hearing all arguments, all positions, all opinions and then be able to come back to your group and properly inform the player on what is taking place and what has happened. That itself is one of the responsibilities for that position.

"When you watch him, when you look at his demeanor, you see how he answers questions, he's very thoughtful. He's not jumping out there. Frankly, I think he's going to do a phenomenal job as a leader."
Eric WinstonAP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerEric Winston becomes the president of the NFL Players Association during labor peace, but with plenty to resolve.

Four years ago, this would be a different conversation.

It would be about millionaires versus billionaires, about how one document will shape the course of professional football for the next decade and how Eric Winston would be the face of the future of the sport.

Fortunately for Winston, the former Arizona Cardinals right tackle who was recently elected president of the NFL Players Association, he doesn't have to worry about that. He doesn't have to worry about his constituents being locked out by the owners or sitting down at the negotiating table to hammer out a collective bargaining agreement. His two-year tenure begins amid labor peace, allowing Winston to spend most his time this offseason on specific issues that face the players and the game.

Timing is everything.

"Yes and no," Winston said. "I think in those negotiations, that's where you're going to accomplish a lot. I think that's where you're getting, whether it's benefits, whether it's salary, whether it's health and safety, all those are up for grabs at that point.

"With a lot of that stuff being settled I can focus in on some topics, and focus on and find out what's hurting our players today and what are the few things we can do right now that can improve the lives of all of our players. I think that's kind of my mission, so to speak."

Winston's mission, to serve as the collective voice of the players, came about with a simple question, he said: "Would you be interested in running?"

He was at the biannual NFLPA meetings when the question was posed. If he was nominated, Winston said, he'd run. It didn't take long for someone at the meetings to follow protocol. A speech later and Winston was the new face -- clean-shaven after a season of growing out a hockey playoff-like beard -- of the players' association.

"It happened fast, that's for sure," Winston said. "I'm happy it happened. I'm eager to try to make a difference."

[+] EnlargeEric Winston
Michael Starghill, Jr. for ESPNEric Winston wants to "find out what's hurting our players today and what are the few things we can do right now that can improve the lives of all of our players. I think that's kind of my mission."
Whether he knows it or not, Winston has already made a difference. And it's built an air of confidence from his side of the table and the other.

Cardinals linebacker Lorenzo Alexander knew Winston but never spent much time around the hulking right tackle. After spending last season with him, Alexander, who has been an NFLPA player rep and was voted onto the current association's executive committee, believes the NFLPA has the right leader.

"He has great leadership qualities and I think a great grasp on the vision he has for the PA," Alexander said. "I think all those things really help him as far as moving forward and strengthening our union as a whole and the perception, I guess, internally and externally from the players."

The perception of Winston was built two years ago, when he was protecting Matt Cassel's strong side for the Kansas City Chiefs. Winston showed everyone -- thanks to countless replays -- that he's more than a big, burly blocker. After Cassel was knocked out of a game against Baltimore and booed by Chiefs fans, Winston verbalized his frustration with the fans and his disdain for their gesture. As Winston's voice rose, his passion for the sport filled the locker room.

Troy Vincent, recently appointed NFL executive vice president for football operations, is also a former NFLPA president. He thinks Winston's passion is only part of the reason he will succeed.

"That says a lot about who an individual is," Vincent said. "I think he's going to be a great leader.

"I know what it takes to be elected. That's not a given and I think he's going to be a fine leader. He's very thoughtful. I think Eric is also very reasonable. I think at that position it has to be balanced to get things done, where you're not always going to agree on everything but you've got to find a common ground that works for everybody and I think, with his experience, I think with his values, I think he's going to be a very good leader for the union."

Assuming the presidency at a time of labor peace gives Winston the opportunity to focus on the players. Winston can lean on the experience of eight NFL seasons of serving as part of three different organizations and apply it to make the difference he's seeking.

The question Winston has to answer first: Where to start?

His overarching goal is to improve the day-to-day lives of the nearly 2,000 players in the NFL, but to do that, Winston understands he has nearly 2,000 different sets of issues to tackle. Each player has his own concerns about the direction of the league and his own career, but Winston has narrowed his first set of priorities to three areas: health and safety, financial literacy and working conditions.

When it comes to health and safety, Winston, who's second among active tackles in consecutive games played and started, thinks looking toward the future can help players now. Continuing to invest in technology and research is a priority, Winston said, because it'll help the league and its players learn more about the health and safety issues that they face on a daily basis, namely head injuries.

[+] EnlargeEric Winston
AP Photo/Greg TrottEric Winston has played eight NFL seasons with three different organizations.
"Doing that now is going to help the guys when they become former players and I think it's going to help the research side of it and it's going to help our former players now that have been suffering," Winston said.

Having watched thousands of players come and go during his career, Winston is also placing an emphasis on teaching players -- young and old -- the importance of taking care of their finances.

"Guys need to understand how to budget, guys need to understand what it means to have a mortgage, what it means to pay something like that, what does the typical cost of living [look like]?" Winston said. "It sounds clichéd but those checks are going to run out at some point. They're not always going to be there and what is really enough, so to speak, to retire on? And, in a way, [I want to] get that word ‘retire' out of the lexicon. You play 10 years and you're 32. There's other things you could do, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't have a nest egg, you shouldn't have something you can fall back on if you can't play that long."

Winston also wants to address workplace conditions, especially when it comes to the locker rooms.

A year ago at this time, Tampa Bay's locker room hadn't been infected by the MRSA outbreak, which occurred in October, nor had the situation in Miami involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin been exposed. Both will help shape the way Winston approaches changes in the locker rooms, albeit in extremely different ways.

"Working conditions are something that's going to be coming up, and we have to do something," Winston said. "I think there needs to be some standardization throughout the NFL and of course, you never know what's going to happen around the corner."

When it comes to approaching the locker room culture, which has come under siege since the reports of bullying in the Dolphins' organization were revealed in November, Winston believes his experience in the league is a bonus. But he's careful to warn that what happened in Miami isn't permeating through the NFL.

"I always think you're going to have something that's out of your control," Winston said. "You're always going to have a 'bad apple,' something that just happens. For whatever reason it happens and obviously it needs to be fixed.

"It's a challenge for all of us," Winston added. "We're professionals now. We got to act professionally. We can't be doing immature things."

Vincent wants to make sure he and Winston work together to "preserve our game."

"Have we forgotten the art of sportsmanship?" Vincent asked.

Vincent foresees working together to educate "all audiences" on eliminating facets of the game that either lead to injury or cast a negative light on the league, such as "harmful" plays.

Another one of Winston's priorities is curbing fines, an interesting dynamic since Vincent is the man responsible for assigning the fines. Winston would like to see fines eliminated for first-time incidental offenses. He thinks they should be levied for a second or third offense.

[+] EnlargeTroy Vincent
AP Photo/Doug Benc"When you watch him, when you look at his demeanor, you see how he answers questions, he's very thoughtful," NFL Executive Vice President for Football Operations Troy Vincent said of Eric Winston. "Frankly, I think he's going to do a phenomenal job."
"I know plenty of guys that whether you fine them $5,000 or $15,000, it's the same to him," Winston said. "They get it. I don't think we have to fine guys an extraordinary amount to get their attention.

"They understand the value of money and what it means to them. To get the fines going up at a rate, it doesn't make sense. It seems much more punitive more than sending a message."

Winston will also help usher in a new era for the NFL when it welcomes its first openly gay player; Missouri's Michael Sam is expected to be drafted in May. The league, Winston said, is more ready than it gets credit for, mainly because this generation of players -- even on the older side -- is more accepting than previous generations.

One issue Winston said the players won't accept, though, is an 18-game schedule.

"I just don't see how that would ever make sense for us," Winston said.

"I don't think there's a need for it. I don't think there's a want for it. There's not a lot of scenarios that I'd say, 18 games in that context make sense. I just don't understand why that would make sense for our players and our guys."

While it's still early, there's an outside chance Winston may not play in any of the 16 games next season. He's been a free agent since March 11. But he's not fretting. Last season, Winston didn't sign with the Cardinals until the first day of training camp.

If Winston isn't signed for the 2014 season, he'll still hold onto his role as president. He'll just have more time on his hands to advocate for the players. Vincent would know. He was the NFLPA president for a year after retiring following the 2006 season and spent it crisscrossing the country, meeting with players, listening to their issues and helping them when called upon. Winston is ready for the responsibility if his career should go that way, but he'd rather be on the field.

Winston admits he has plenty to learn. He's served on NFLPA committees and understands the politics and policies, but has never held a role comparable to this.

Even though Vincent has crossed over to the league, he still offered a piece of advice to Winston: Listen. Vincent told him he doesn't need to have every answer, but he needs to be a great listener.

The more he listens, the more Winston will learn about his constituents. And the better president he'll become.

"You got to have balance," Vincent said. "There's a reason you have to be able to make sure that you're hearing all arguments, all positions, all opinions and then be able to come back to your group and properly inform the player on what is taking place and what has happened. That itself is one of the responsibilities for that position.

"When you watch him, when you look at his demeanor, you see how he answers questions, he's very thoughtful. He's not jumping out there. Frankly, I think he's going to do a phenomenal job as a leader."
As good as the Arizona Cardinals defense was in 2013, there are ways to make it better.

Arizona picks 20th in the first round of May's NFL draft, leaving them with plenty of options to fill positions of need -- a tackle or safety, for example -- or address areas where it wants to improve.

In ESPN Draft Insider Todd McShay's fourth mock draft, Insider he has the Cardinals addressing one of their biggest needs in the first round and a potential future need in the second.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

A month from today, the excitement of the first round will have died down. The parties will have ended and coaches, general managers and owners will have stopped patting each other on the back.

It’ll be time for the real work to start.

With the second and third round of the NFL draft a month from today, the Cardinals’ needs are very similar to theirs in the first round. But there’s one twist: If the Cardinals draft a quarterback, it’ll be on the second day.

Since the Cardinals can only draft one player on Day 1, five of the six positions I wrote about Tuesday will still be in play.

Here’s a look at which direction the Cardinals’ second and third rounds could go:

Quarterback: Arizona is in luck that Carson Palmer is healthy – and productive – heading into the 2014 season. That means a quarterback isn’t a first-round priority, but it’s a priority, nonetheless. Palmer is entering the last season of his contract (the final year expires five days after the Super Bowl) and Arizona needs to start looking to the future. And the second or third round is a perfect place to start, especially with a quarterback such as LSU’s Zach Mettenberger or Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas. Both fit the Bruce Arians’ mold but both need work – Mettenberger because of his ACL injury and Thomas because he’s more raw than anything. With how complex the Cardinals’ offense is to learn, spending a year learning it will benefit any quarterback Arizona chooses. And if the conditions are right, don’t be surprised to see the Cardinals trade up in the second or trade to get another second-round pick to nab a quarterback.

The six positions I wrote about on Tuesday in order of their priority in the second or third round:

Safety: Arizona needs to fill this need and the second day of the draft is the best place to find a sleeper safety. It’s likely Deone Bucannon or Calvin Pryor are long gone by this point, leaving Arizona with a no shortage of options.

Right tackle: Remember how I said there were only a handful of first-round tackles? They’re already getting fitted for their jersey and picking out their NFL numbers. The Cardinals could go tackle in the second or wait to see who drops to the third. General manager Steve Keim isn’t someone to rush a pick, especially when it’s a position the Cardinals need. And you can be sure he’s done his homework and will have someone up his sleeve that is way off the radar.

Linebacker: Like I said Tuesday, with the depth Arizona has at outside linebacker, the Cardinals would only go this route if the player was the best available on the board, but don’t be surprise if the Cardinals trade up for a good linebacker in the second round if they don’t think he’ll be there long.

Cornerback: There is speed everywhere these days but Arizona needs a smart corner who can flourish in Todd Bowle’s man press coverage. But if the Cardinals don’t find one in the second or third round, it’s not time to panic. The newest cornerback will have two very good mentors to learn from and grow under.

Defensive lineman: While not an immediate priority, don’t be surprised if the Cardinals turn some heads by drafting a defensive tackle in the second or third round.

Tight end: If Arizona doesn’t get the tight end it wants in the first round, then this is a position that can be pushed back until the third day.
A lot has been made of the devaluation of running backs throughout the league.

The premium on running backs is dropped because more teams are running spread offenses and the passing game is taking a priority over the run game. Of the 19 free-agent running backs who have signed since March 11, only one has a deal that's worth an average annual value of at least $3.5 million.

The devaluation of running backs isn't new in 2014. During the first round of last year's NFL draft, not a single running back was chosen. And neither of ESPN NFL draft insiders, Mel Kiper Insider nor Todd McShay Insider, have a running back going in the first round of their latest mock drafts.

It's gotten to the point that in some cases, punters are earning more than running backs. This tweet by ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, shows difference in the guaranteed money between the top kicker, punter and running back contracts signed this offseason.

 

The Arizona Cardinals are among the teams who are paying their punter more than most or all of their running backs.

Dave Zastudil signed a two-year contract in January and will earn $1.5 million in 2014. The Cardinals' highest-paid running back? Ryan Williams. He'll make $1.05 million next season, a year after not being active for any of Arizona's 16 games. The Cardinals' top two returning running backs, Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor, will each make $495,000 next season. Recently acquired running back Jonathan Dwyer is scheduled to earn $795,000 in 2014.

At $1.02 million, kicker Jay Feely will make more than every running back except Williams.

The NFL is in the midst of another paradigm shift. It could be a fad or it could be here to stay. Good running backs will get paid but the rest will enter a league that devalues them for years to come.
Bruce Arians has said it. So has his general manager.

It's an adage as old as the NFL -- You can't teach speed.

But on March 6, the Arizona Cardinals hired two-time Olympic gold medalist hurdler Roger Kingdom to be the team's speed coach. Apparently, you can teach it.

“Through improved mechanics and strength work you can teach speed,” Kingdom said. “Depending on where the guys are within their genetic makeup is going to determine how much better they get. If they already maxed out in their genetic makeup, then teaching them speed and so forth will help them become more efficient and consistent right where they are.”

Teaching speed, Kingdom said, is easier than people think.

First, it's about mechanics. Fix a player's fundamentals and he'll naturally get faster, Kingdom said, especially if he's either on the bottom or tapped out his genetic makeup. And Kingdom didn't just talk about shaving a few milliseconds off -- he said a player could go from a 4.5-second 40-yard dash to low 4.4 or even high 4.3-seconds.

Once the mechanics are fixed, Kingdom said his job gets even easier.

Football players, Kingdom added, work in a lactate threshold.

“Everything that they do, in other words, is anaerobic and done within a six-second interval,” Kingdom said. “And the average play takes about three-point-something seconds. That's why I said it's easy. All I have to do is create short, explosive workouts that's going to help these guys be faster and quicker.”

Those workouts will consist of drills that will re-train the players' central nervous system “just like training a kid how to walk all over again.”

While it's easy to Kingdom, making players faster is a process, he said.

The next step is getting them aligned and once that happens, players start running more efficiently. Once they have an efficient foundation, Kingdom and the Cardinals strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris will start them on a weight room regiment to complement their new speed, which will include sled pulls and power exercises.

“That's one of the reasons why speed can be trained,” Kingdom said. “Speed can be trained.”

One of the major differences between training football players and runners is the time Kingdom has to make his transformation. With runners, he can take two or three years to completely rebuild their form and workout program to make them faster.

In three years, a football player's career can be over.

Because of a smaller window of opportunity, Kingdom, who played football for two years at the University of Pittsburgh where Morris was his strength and conditioning coach, admits it's easier for teams to sign faster guys and it's even easier for him to help them make greater strides. It takes a longer time for slower players to rebuild their mechanics and get caught up to speed.

“I know if they all listen to me they will all be able to get faster and more efficient and that's just through their improved mechanics,” Kingdom said. “And thank God that myself, coach Morris and also (assistant strength and conditioning coach) Pete Alosi, we're all mechanical nuts so we all believe in improved technique. That's one thing we're going to hammer home to all those athletes out there.”
One month from today, the hypothesizing will come to end. Until then, however, let the mock drafts, draft proposals and player dissections continue.

The first round of the NFL draft will take place May 8 in New York City and after 19 picks, the Arizona Cardinals will be put on the clock. With 30 days left, Arizona’s needs are clearer than they were immediately after the season.

Here’s a look at which direction the Cardinals’ first round could go:

Cornerback: There have been a solid handful of mock drafts that link the Cardinals with a cornerback and it’s possible they go this route if the best player available is a corner. But with the addition of Antonio Cromartie, a cornerback is not as high of a priority as it was before his signing. If a top-tier talent like Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard or Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert isn’t around, the Cardinals will likely pass on a cornerback and address another need.

Safety: By now, the Cardinals’ Achilles heel on defense is well known: They need a tall, quick strong safety to help defend tight ends. But with a good amount of safety depth in the draft, if the Cardinals don’t get the guy they want at 20th, they’ll be able to fill the position on the second or third day. But if a player like Deone Bucannon or Calvin Pryor is there, look for the Cardinals to draft him.

Right tackle: There are probably about nine or 10 really good tackles in this draft class but only a handful of them are first-round talent. It’s likely the Cardinals could see a tackle like Virginia’s Morgan Moses or Notre Dame’s Zack Martin fall to 20th, but then the discussion in their war room becomes whether or not the Cards want to play first-round money for either.

Tight end: The most unlikely of first-round picks, a tight end can be found anywhere in this draft. But, like with any position, if the right guy is waiting at No. 20, it would hard -- and foolish -- to pass up. If both North Carolina’s Eric Ebron and Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro are gone by time the Cardinals pick in the first round, expect them to pass over tight ends until later in the draft.

Linebacker: With a roster full of depth at outside linebacker, the Cardinals would only pick one if he is the best player available -- such as a Buffalo’s Khalil Mack or UCLA’s Anthony Barr. Arizona has its two starters back from last season and three outside linebackers returning from injury. This is a position the Cards have to address for the future, just not likely in the first round.

Defensive lineman: Much like linebacker, drafting a defensive lineman will be a best-player-available scenario. It’s time the Cardinals started looking for Darnell Dockett’s replacement. This year’s draft will have a slew of possibilities but a good fit -- for example Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III or Florida’s Dominique Easley -- may be available in the second round.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Yeremiah Bell's absence from the roster has left the Arizona Cardinals with a sizeable gap in the secondary.

Without a true strong safety on the team, the Cardinals will be looking to fill the position in May's NFL draft. If Arizona is forced to, though, it can turn to the two free safeties currently on the team -- Rashad Johnson or Tony Jefferson -- to move to strong safety. That's not an ideal situation, said ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson.

Johnson
Jefferson
“Neither is ideal and either might be best suited to be the third safety, but I think it depends what they want from the position,” Williamson said. “To me, Johnson is clearly the better cover guy and Jefferson is the better run player.”

Arizona's safety corps is in flux until Tyrann Mathieu returns from his ACL and LCL injuries and until a strong safety is signed. Last season with Bell, currently a free agent, on the field, Mathieu became the starter in Week 4 after Johnson lost the tip of his left middle finger. Mathieu played well enough to supplant Johnson until Mathieu got hurt in Week 13.

But when Arizona' safeties are restocked, Johnson and Jefferson would give the Cardinals “great” depth, Williamson added.

Until then, however, Johnson would be the presumed starter at free safety while Jefferson would fill in at strong safety. Both are 5-11, not the ideal size for a tandem of safeties. Last season, it was often Bell's responsibility to defend opponents' tight ends. That didn't work in the Cardinals' favor because of a combination of Bell's declining speed at 35 and lack of size. Of the 29 touchdowns thrown by opposing quarterbacks, 17 went to tight ends.

Ideally, the Cardinals would like a safety taller than 6-foot who can run with tight ends such as St. Louis' Jared Cook and San Francisco's Vernon Davis, but it's not necessary, Williamson said.

“I don't think they need that guy,” he said. “He would be great to have, but they also don't grow on trees.”

They do, however, grow in the draft.

Two prospects who Williamson identified as good fits in Arizona are Louisville's Calvin Pryor and Washington State's Deone Bucannon. They're the second- and third-ranked safeties, respectively, in this year's draft class according to ESPN.com. Pryor is listed at 5-11 1/8 while Bucannon is 6-1.

Williamson doesn't think Pryor gets past the first round, in which Arizona picks 20th, and he doesn't think Bucannon falls out of the second.

The Cardinals' needs are minimal, Williamson added, but safety is one position that can be upgraded. However, to Williamson, filling the void left by Bell may not be vital to Arizona's success in 2014.

“I think the rest of the defense is strong enough and will get stronger through the draft that if they open the season with Jefferson and/or Johnson in that role, this team is still a strong contender and should have a top-10 defense either way,” Williamson said.

Important Cardinals offseason dates

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
6:15
PM ET
The Arizona Cardinals announced their offseason schedule on Thursday.

Teams with a returning coach can officially begin their offseason strength and conditioning on April 21, when the Cardinals' program will commence.

They'll have three voluntary organized team activities, commononly referred to as OTAs, a rookie minicamp and an all-team minicamp. Arizona's offseason program will be over by June 5, leaving the Cardinals almost two months before training camp should begin.

Here's the schedule:

April 21 - Offsesaon strength and conditioning program begins

May 20-22 - Voluntary OTA for veterans and rookies

May 23-25 - Minicamp for rookies

May 27-29 - Voluntary OTA for veterans and rookies

June 2-5 - Voluntary OTA for veterans and rookies

June 10-12 - Minicamp for veterans and rookies

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