NFC West: Bruce Arians

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians set the tone from the start of Monday's post-practice press conference.

It was the team's first offseason practice in 2014 without linebacker Daryl Washington, who was suspended Friday for at least a year for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy and program.

"This will be the last time this will be addressed by the Cardinals," Arians said. "We will not talk about guys who are not with us ever again."

But that starts Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeArizona's Bruce Arians
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriBruce Arians called his disappointment with suspended linebacker Daryl Washington "extreme."
On Monday, most questions revolved around Washington and where the Cardinals were headed without their star linebacker. Arians called his disappointment with Washington "extreme."

"It's something that he made a choice and we're all living with it," Arians added.

With Washington's suspension already effective, he's not allowed in the team's facility. It's not quite out-of-sight, out-of-mind, but the Cardinals aren't looking back.

"You can't do anything but just move on," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "It doesn't matter if you're disappointed. Complaining about it, talking about it, doesn't really do anything. You just got to move on and get past it.

"When you hear the news you just kinda say, ‘OK, well it's next guy up.' We got to find a way to come up with those 60, 70 tackles, or four or five forced fumbles or whatever it was. Those plays he made, now it's either somebody else in that position that needs to make them or somebody else in that defense that needs to make them, or it's 14 more points a game we got to figure out how to score on offense. We'll overcome it and we'll get past it."

Part of moving on without Washington is addressing the void he left at inside linebacker.

While second-year linebacker Kevin Minter has been promoted to the starting lineup for now, what happens next to him is the question that'll be answered in the next couple of months. There are a few options on the roster with veterans Larry Foote and Lorenzo Alexander, as well as with second-year backer Kenny Demens.

But Arians said adding another linebacker to the roster isn't imperative at the moment.

"We'd still like to have some depth because we're short now going into camp," Arians said. "We'd like to have seven inside linebackers going into camp. We'll see what's available and pursue it from there."

It wasn't a situation the Cardinals wanted to face just two weeks before breaking for the summer, but if there was a time to lose Washington this was among the better options. Arizona still has almost two months before training camp begins to find a replacement and then another month to add a player during camp.

This isn't the first time Arizona has had to prepare for a season without Washington.

After he was suspended four games last year, the Cardinals relegated Washington to the second team during OTAs and minicamp, giving other players, such as Jasper Brinkley, a chance to get work with the first team. Instead of Washington's replacement knowing he's just a temporary fix at inside linebacker, this year he'll have the piece of mind of knowing it's a job he can win.

"Any time you have a suspended player it's a lot easier than a guy getting injured like (guard Jonathan) Coop(er) last year," Arians said. "Now, you're struggling within one week to rebuild everything. An injury in Game 3 or 4 of the preseason is devastating when you lose a guy for the year.

"We practiced without Daryl last year and got everybody ready to go. It's just a matter of he's gone for the season and you march on. You got plenty of practice time now."

Arians said he last talked to Washington last week when he told him about the suspension. Arians also said he's not allowed to talk to Washington from now on. The coach called his Pro Bowl linebacker "unaccountable" to his teammates, the Cardinals' organization and Cards' fans.

Monday started a new chapter for the Cardinals, who began their quest to repeat as the best run defense in the league without a major cog -- nor his 75 tackles and three sacks from last season.

"Hopefully this is the biggest thing that happens to our football team this year," Arians said. "But there's going to be another two or three bumps in the road, guys will be out. You have to march on. You cannot use it as an excuse."
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- A wrap-up of the Arizona Cardinals' draft. Click here for a full list of Cardinals draftees.

[+] EnlargeLogan Thomas
AP Photo/Michael ConroyVirginia Tech's Logan Thomas could be the Cardinals' starter by 2015.
Best move: Drafting Logan Thomas. Quarterback has been a touchy subject around the Cardinals all offseason, especially since Carson Palmer has just one more year on his contract. Adding Thomas gives the Cardinals an option for the future. The best part of drafting Thomas is, as long as Palmer stays healthy, he won’t be forced into action this coming season. The longer Thomas can sit behind Palmer and learn Bruce Arians’ offense, the better he’ll be in the long run. Anyone watching the Cardinals in 2013 saw how long it took for the offense to grasp the intricate scheme Arians installed. Having a young quarterback immersed in it for about 10 months before he’s handed the keys will allow him to make a seamless transition. It’ll also take at least that long for Thomas to be ready to start. He has the physical tools, but there are accuracy issues that need to be addressed. It's a small trade-off for having a quarterback who can eventually be a starter.

Riskiest move: Trading out of the 20th pick in the first round ended up working out for the Cardinals, but it was their riskiest move of the draft. Had the Cardinals missed out on safety Deone Bucannon, the shape of their entire draft would have changed. And if there was one pressing need for Arizona this year it is at safety. Their inability to cover tight ends was no secret, so finding a tall, physical safety in the first round was almost imperative for the Cardinals to make a run at the playoffs. If Bucannon had been off the board before No. 27, the Cardinals would’ve been in trouble.

Most surprising move: Drafting multiple players at the same position. The Cardinals used this draft to stock up at wide receiver and defensive end, but they left a few needs on the board. Arizona wanted to improve at speed receiver but picking John Brown in the third round and then Walt Powell in the sixth round created a logjam. Both bring different attributes to the field, but they’re similar in stature and rely on speed to earn their keep. How many of the same type of player is needed? The same question can be asked about the defensive ends Arizona selected. The Cardinals drafted Kareem Martin in the third round and then Ed Stinson in the fifth. General manager Steve Keim said Stinson was the backup plan if another team had drafted Martin, but Arizona opted for both. Like the receivers, Martin and Stinson are touted as different pass-rushers but either one would’ve fit Arizona’s need. The Cardinals finished the draft with holes at right tackle and linebacker.

File it away: This draft class will have three players who’ll be considered "hits" in a few years. Bucannon can become an instant starter while utilizing his range and size, especially against the run. Tight end Troy Niklas has the size and athleticism to emerge as one of the best tight ends in the league, especially in Arians’ offense. And if Thomas can fix his accuracy issues, he can wind up being the Cardinals starter in 2015.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Logan Thomas wasn't picked in the fourth round to be the Arizona Cardinals' starting quarterback in 2014.

He wasn't even picked to be Carson Palmer's backup.

[+] EnlargeLogan Thomas
AP Photo/John BazemoreLogan Thomas, a 6-foot-6 quarterback out of Virginia Tech, will be an ideal project for Cardinals coach Bruce Arians.
But a year from now, the Cardinals may have a starting quarterback who'll be a refined, polished version of the man drafted 120th overall. That's what can happen after Thomas, the former Virginia Tech quarterback, spends a year on the bench under the tutelage of Palmer, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians and assistant coach Tom Moore.

"I think it's completely just learning how to be a professional in general," Thomas said.

"I have the opportunity to sit back, watch and learn, and learn from a guy who's been in the league for a good amount of time and has had a lot of success in the league as well. I really have the opportunity to learn. And learning at this age is something anybody needs and then once I get my shot is when you really start moving forward."

Thomas was one of few players in this draft who fit the mold of an Arians-style quarterback. He's 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds with "probably one of the strongest arms in the last 10 years," Arians said last week. The physical tools to be a starter are there, but Thomas isn't ready to be handed the keys to an offense just yet. His accuracy has come under scrutiny, not just by so-called experts, but Thomas as well.

He's the ideal project for Arians, who worked out Thomas in April at Virginia Tech. Accuracy and vision is something Arians can fix. Height, speed and arm strength, however, can't be taught.

But Thomas isn't a weekend project. His off-target percentage was 25 percent his last two seasons at Virginia Tech. During that stretch, his QBR was 47.6. For perspective, the top 10 quarterbacks ranked by Scouts Inc. all had a QBR of more than 60 since the start of the 2012 season. Some of that had to do with the fact Thomas had three different offensive coordinators in as many years. Each had their own philosophy and asked for different things. Arians understood that and has referred to Thomas' success during his sophomore season.

Through the smokescreens put out by Arians and Cardinals general manager, however a piece of truth could be pieced together. They weren't about to draft a quarterback in the fourth round or later who couldn't overtake either Drew Stanton or Ryan Lindley. Thomas has the ability to do both, although winning the third-string job is more likely to start the season.

Arians' offense best runs with a quarterback the size of Thomas who has similar mobility. Look at Ben Roethlisberger, a young Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. All have the size and feet to get out of trouble and make plays with their legs.

Thomas might be a better physical specimen than all of them. Now, it's about refining the football part of him.

"I think it kinda shows he's willing to work with a guy and build him up and create him into a pretty much a monster in the way they play football," Thomas said. "For me, I couldn't have gone into a better situation. I'm very blessed."
TEMPE, Ariz. -- For months, the message from Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was the same.

Arizona would use its 120-man draft board to pick the best player available, regardless of need. And if you asked Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, the team didn't have any glaring needs. But with three rounds of the NFL draft in the books, the Cardinals have four new players and each addressed a specific need.

[+] EnlargeTroy Niklas
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)Troy Niklas is expected to solidify a Cardinals tight end corp that is the foundation of Bruce Arians' offense.
Safety. Tight end. Pass rusher. Speed receiver.

Coincidence? I think not. And Keim all but said it was a smokescreen.

"I told you we were the only two you can believe," Keim said with a smile.

To which Arians followed: "Truth kills, baby."

But this was a draft in which Arizona could get away with picking for need. The work done over the last 16 months has put the Cardinals in a position in which they were a few specific positions away from turning a long-term corner. They addressed a handful -- left tackle, third receiver, kick returner and cornerback -- in free agency. The rest, as Keim would prefer it, would be found through the draft.

"I think that's the emphasis you put into building that board," Keim said. "We saw best player available but there is an emphasis on who impacts our football team the most. We are never going to leave a good player on the board to the side, but we do want to find guys who are going to impact us the most."

Sometimes who that is and who's atop their boards may not match up.

Arizona's first-round pick, Deone Bucannon, plugged a hole at strong safety. Second-round pick Troy Niklas solidified a tight end corps that is the foundation of Arians' offense. The Cardinals used their first third-round pick on Kareem Martin, who can provide relief on the defensive line while evolving into a pass rusher, and their second third-round pick on John Brown, a small-school speedster who can take the top off defenses and return kicks.

Of the group, Bucannon and Niklas probably were among the best players available when Arizona went on the clock. But Martin was a pick with the future in mind. And Arizona was high on Brown from the start.

"You have to almost look at it with a three-year view and understand that when we are talking about certain positions, they may not be the biggest need right now but in 2015, that may be our biggest need," Keim said a week before the draft. "So, if you can continue to have rollover and develop players, young players that can replace those guys when either their contracts are up or players move on, I think that's the way that ultimately you'd love for it to go."

That didn't seem committed to best-player available, rather than to picking for need. By late Friday, Keim said, the Cards' board was starting to look a little picked over.

"There are still quite a few players that we covet that are left," Keim said. "Rounds four, five and six should be fruitful for us. It has been picked pretty good."
While Cardinals fans will comb over Arizona’s schedule when it’s released today at 5 p.m. PT, looking for what games they want to attend or when the Seahawks come to town, head coach Bruce Arians will be taking a different perspective on the Cards’ 2014 slate.

Arians
Arians
He’ll be looking for any back-to-back East Coast games, any long trips that lead into a short week, where Arizona’s Thursday night game is and where the Cards play the week before.

“The home team on a Thursday night game has a huge advantage in that you get an extra day of practice, or a walk through because you really don’t practice,” Arians said. “If you have to travel very far [for] that Thursday night game, that’s really tough.”

Arizona hosted Seattle last season on Thursday night and played at St. Louis in 2012.

With the hours ticking away until the schedule is released, the date of the Cardinals’ trip to play the Giants has already been leaked by WFAN 660 in New York City. Arizona will head to the Big Apple in Week 2, playing New York on Sept. 14. And according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Arizona will host the Detroit Lions in Week 11.

You can be sure Arians will be paying close attention to who and where the Cardinals play in Weeks 1 and 3.

Every team in the NFL is guaranteed a Thursday night game, but the Cardinals may find themselves playing in weekend prime time, either Sunday or Monday nights, more than once. The last time Arizona played a game on Monday night was in 2012, which turned into a 24-3 blowout by San Francisco.

But Arizona’s 7-2 finish in 2013 may have primed them for national television.

“I leave that up to the networks,” Arians said. “I think our play spoke for itself the second half of the season and so that’s one of the things I’m anxious to see.”

Arians, however, would’ve preferred the schedule be out by now.

“It’s kind of a little bit late for me,” he said. “I wish we would’ve known already. But it is what it is. So we’ll play it.”
The more weight Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington puts on this offseason, the better for him and the Cardinals.

[+] EnlargeAndre Ellington
Jennifer Stewart/USA TODAY SportsCardinals GM Steve Keim is aiming for running back Andre Ellington (pictured) to share some of the backfield load with Stepfan Taylor in 2014.
He’s already gained 10 pounds in the two months since Arizona's season ended, coach Bruce Arians said Friday at the NFL combine. But if general manager Steve Keim has his way, Ellington won't be using that added weight to protect his body from carrying the ball 30 times a game next season -- even if Arians wants to build the offense around Ellington this season.

Keim doesn’t plan on Ellington being Arizona’s featured back in 2014. Then again, Keim doesn’t plan on anybody filling that role.

“I don't know that there are many featured backs in the NFL,” Keim said. "Adrian Peterson, those types of guys. Most teams use a platoon of backs and that would probably be no different than us.

“To say you're going to play him 25 to 35 snaps, pounding the ball between the tackles, you're probably leaving yourself open to injuries. So any time, we can take a young man like him, add some weight without losing his speed and movement skills, I think you're doing yourself a favor.”

Keim compared Ellington to Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson based on their physical similarities. And like those backs, Ellington’s strengths, Keim said, are his speed, acceleration and movement.

But the difference is that Charles and Johnson are featured backs.

Charles had 259 carries in 2013 for 1,287 yards. The next most carries were by Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. And Johnson had 279 carries for 1,077 yards -- 222 more than the next Titan.

After last season, Arians said Ellington could be a feature back if he’s used similarly to his role in 2013, which saw him evolve into a receiver. Arians said in December that Ellington’s receiving ability creates mismatches for defenses similar to tight ends like New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham or San Francisco’s Vernon Davis.

“I've never been around a running back who stepped on the field and tried to do things he's never done before and played wide receiver as good as he does,” Arians said at the combine. “He plays it as well as most of our starting wide receivers. He has a unique talent we want to look at and continue to build our offense around this year.”

Taylor
To save Ellington’s body from the daily beat down that comes with being a featured back -- just ask Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, who routinely sat out practices during the week to rest -- the Cardinals will be relying on Stepfan Taylor to pick up crucial third downs and important yards.

In 2013, six of Taylor's 36 carries went for first downs and he had a 40 percent third-down conversion percentage.

With Rashard Mendenhall an unrestricted free agent this year and his name rarely getting mentioned in Indianapolis, Taylor’s thunder to Ellington’s lightning could be the platoon Keim wants.

“He and Andre are really polar opposites, when you talk about perimeter runner than you have an inside pounder like Stepfan, who when the game was on in Seattle and we needed a first down to ice the game, we gave it to Stepfan and he had a 10- or 11-yard run to finish the game,” Keim said. “He's a guy we have big expectations for us. He's very smart. He's articulate. Great young man, works his tail off.

“I think the future is really bright for him."
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Cardinals coach Bruce Arians will be able to enjoy Super Bowl weekend from the comfort of his Arizona home instead of battling the brutal cold of New York City.

The reigning NFL Coach of the Year won’t be attending the NFL Honors ceremony to collect his second straight award.

“I think I came in fifth,” Arians said after playing in the Annexus Pro-Am at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Arians won the award last season after going 9-3 as the Indianapolis Colts’ interim head coach.

This year, his competition was tougher with Kansas City’s Andy Reid and Carolina’s Ron Rivera leading the charge for the honor.

Arians, however, made a stiff case.

In his first season in Arizona, he turned the Cardinals into a 10-6 team on the verge of the playoffs after a 5-11 campaign in 2012.

The last coach to win back-to-back coach of the year awards was Joe Gibbs in 1982 and ’83.
Bruce Arians isn’t the type of coach who will throw passes during warm-ups or have a Song of the Day on Twitter. Instead, he’ll ride his players and isn't one to sugarcoat. He’ll rip them, then hug them. He’ll instigate and then laugh about it.

That is why Arians has become a favorite among his players. He has only been the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals for a year, so his reputation hasn’t yet spread through the league, like that of Seattle coach Pete Carroll, who was voted the coach NFL players would most like to play for. Arians received less than 10 votes, but I’m not surprised.

Arians is not as well known and hasn't been a head coach as long as Mike Tomlin (second place), John Fox (third) or Rex Ryan (fourth). Besides Ryan, although he’s tasted a few victories in his day, the one thing the top-nine vote getters shared was a penchant for winning. Four have won Super Bowl titles. Three others have coached in the game, and Carroll is about to. I don’t think their success and their popularity around the league is a coincidence.

With the success Arians had in 2013, give him time and he’ll be on that list soon enough.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- When coach Bruce Arians was hired last January, he had visions of going deep.

Palmer
On his play sheet, he would say, had "six bullets." Meaning, Arians had six plays of 20 yards or longer he wanted to use every game. If executed perfectly, Carson Palmer would've aired it out almost 100 times in 2013.

He didn't quite reach that mark.

The longer the pass, the more Palmer struggled, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information. He threw 69 passes of 20 yards or longer (about 4.3 per game), completing 20 of them. And of his 25 passes of 31 yards or longer, he hit on six.

By Week 5, the struggles were obvious. Arizona had thrown 20 deep passes, connecting on three of them. During the final 11 weeks, Arians continued calling for "bullets" at about the same pace, averaging about 4.45 per game.

Passes of 31 yards or longer yielded just one touchdown for Palmer, who excelled in short passes.

In throws of 10 yards or less, he was fifth in the NFL going 257 for 359, or 71.6 percent. He had 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. But once his passes went beyond 10 yards, the risk of them getting intercepted went up.

From 11-20 yards, he threw eight interceptions compared to six touchdowns. Palmer had seven interceptions and six touchdowns on passes 21 yards or longer. And on throws that went 31 yards or longer, he had five interceptions.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- According to Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, picking a quarterback in the first round of May’s NFL draft is out of the question.

Arians
Arians
“Why?” Arians responded when asked by Bob McManaman of AZCentral.com what Arians would tell people who want to see Arizona draft a signal-caller with the 20th overall pick.

Arians was right. Why would the Cardinals pick a quarterback in the first round? They don’t need one that badly, but I do think a quarterback needs to be drafted this year.

He told AZCentral: “Well, we’ve got two pretty good ones that are younger (in backups Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley). But for us right now it’s about winning a championship. I don’t think we can afford to have a guy come in like that. I’m not a believer in a guy learning anything sitting on the bench. You have to play. It’s the only way you learn. He’s got to get the reps in practice, he’s got to be under center and throwing all the time or he’s not going to get any better.”

To me, that reads that neither Stanton nor Lindley are the quarterback of the future for the Cardinals. Neither played in 2013. Stanton hasn’t thrown a pass in a regular-season game since 2010 and Lindley didn’t play this past season. Both of those guys learned the offense while sitting on the bench. If we’re going with what Arians said -- the only way you learn is by playing -- then how could he feel confident handing the offense to either of those two if starter Carson Palmer went down?

If Arizona drafted a quarterback after the first round, wouldn’t they get the reps in practice like Stanton and Lindley did? Of course. Unless, Arians was hinting at LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who tore his ACL in November and might not be ready until September, if he can even come back to full strength within a year.

I think Arians is being coy. Neither Stanton nor Lindley are the future for Arizona, and with how tough Arians’ scheme was for the Cardinals to learn this past season, it’ll be tougher for a rookie. Continuity is vital for the Cardinals’ offense to succeed and having someone waiting in line behind Palmer can only help that.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- A year ago today, the Arizona Cardinals' fortunes changed.

And they changed for the better.

It was Jan. 17, 2013, when Bruce Arians was introduced as the team’s 38th head coach and, if they’re lucky, he might be the Cardinals’ best. Arians brought his own way of doing things to the desert. After more than 40 years in the game -- including 21 in the NFL -- Arians saw what worked for head coaches and what didn’t. He saw how they won, how they lost. How they earned players’ respect and how they lost it.

He took the best of his mentors and his former bosses and became the result.

[+] EnlargeArizona's Bruce Arians
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriBruce Arians has quickly raised the level of expectations for Arizona fans.
Along his long and winding road to becoming a head coach at 60, Arians developed his own style and his own approach. He wants to win by simply coaching football. He’s not one for all the periphery. He cares about what happens with his staff, in his locker room, and on his field. The rest? It’s just there.

That’s why he’ll be successful in Arizona. He isn't caught up in why the Cardinals have been mired in losing. He’s looking forward. It’s taken him so long to get here that Arians doesn’t have time to look back. He makes decisions and sticks with them -- something that hasn’t been seen around the Cardinals in a few years.

Not to mention he’s an offensive genius, but that’s for another day.

I’ve written it before, but Arians has changed the culture of the organization. There have been coaches who ruled with an iron fist and dictated with fear. Not Arians. Like he said during his end-of-season news conference, he really is like your favorite uncle. His “Hey, baby” greeting to everyone and anyone -- good days or bad -- just shows what kind of person he is. Like his players, he wants everyone around the franchise to do their jobs and do them well. With more coaches searching for more power these days, it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t need to control everything. He works with general manager Steve Keim to put together the best roster they can, but it’s always a “Cardinal decision,” as Arians likes to call it.

He’s been a breath of fresh air to the Cardinals. And with that, he’s brought wins. It’s only been one season, but Arians proved he was worth the risk. So many teams passed on hiring Arians at one point or another, except for the Cardinals. They took a chance, and now he’s rewarding them.

Ten wins would have been cause for a ticker-tape parade through Central Avenue most seasons. Last season was different. Fans were asking why the Cardinals didn’t win 11, or 12, or make the playoffs? After three straight years of average or bad football, to have a mindset and culture change that quickly is impressive.

And it only took Arians a year.
TEMPE, Ariz. – If stopping the best team in the league on its home turf with a defensive scheme that all but rendered Seattle’s Russell Wilson ineffective isn’t the best the Arizona Cardinals can do, then watch out.

Because, according to them, the best is yet to come, even if they may have just one more chance this season to prove it.

Both coach Bruce Arians and veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby said the ceiling for Arizona’s defense isn’t close to being reached.

[+] EnlargeCalais Campbell
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonCalais Campbell mimed hitting it out of the park after a sack in Seattle, but the Cardinals reckon their defense can pack an even bigger wallop.
“It’s up there,” Dansby said. “It’s up there. We still got a lot of growing to do. We still left a lot of plays out on the field. We gave them a little too much than we wanted to give them, but they’re a great offense. You can only shut them down for so long.”

Or for the whole game, whichever comes first.

Arizona enters its final regular-season game with the best run defense in the league and the third-best in terms of passing yards per play, which makes for the sixth-best unit overall. But Arians said there are still some nuances of the defense that need to be learned.

Yet that hasn’t stopped Arizona. Winning seven of their last eight, Arizona is among the hottest teams in the league – if not the hottest. And beating the Seahawks in Seattle by holding them under 200 yards has put the rest of the league on notice.

“I don’t think too many teams want to see us in the playoffs, especially the way our defense is playing right now,” Arians said. “To have a road win like that, it’s a playoff atmosphere because they were playing for everything, I would feel very confident going anywhere in the National Football League playing anybody.”

Arians may have felt this way before about other defenses he’s been around – including the Steelers from 2004 to 2011 – but none can compare to this year’s unit, he said, because of the number of takeaways. Arizona intercepted Wilson once and recovered a fumble, giving the Cards 30 takeaways this season, more than all but three teams in the league.

The core of the defense is going to return, Arians said, which means next season could pick up where this one ends. That’s an equally scary thought for the rest of the league.

Dansby, who signed a one-year deal during the offseason for $2.25 million, didn’t rule out the possibility of returning for less money, but he said it’ll all be worked out once the season’s over.

“All depends on the situation,” he said. “Come back next season, man, it’s no telling what we can do as a team.”

That ideal will help Arizona when it comes to re-signing its defense, Arians believes.

“Change is inevitable in the NFL now,” Arians said. “There is no way this team will be put back together, but we’re going to keep every component that we can possibly. Some guys are going to test the market. Hopefully what’s happened in our locker room is worth some dollars because if you can’t match dollars, we can at least match that.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Darren Fells told his father he was getting recruited to play big-time college football, his father thought it was all but a done deal.

He thought it was a foregone conclusion that his son, all 6-foot-7, 281 pounds of him, would accept one of the football scholarships offered from either UCLA, Arizona State, Washington, Washington State or any of the other then-Pac-10 schools. So when Fells, who was all-state in football in California, accepted a scholarship to UC-Irvine -- to play basketball -- everybody was floored.

"Pretty much every single person I know thought I made a mistake doing basketball over football," Fells said. "Even my dad was shocked. My dad was extremely shocked that I was doing basketball.

"Especially when I was getting those UCLA letters, he was telling everybody, ‘Oh yeah, my son is about to get a full ride to UCLA, be a tight end.' And then when he found out I signed, that shocked him. He was proud of me but it just shocked him. He thought for a fact I was going football because both my older brothers went football."

[+] EnlargeDarren Fells
Courtesy of Obras SanitariasDarren Fells, once an international basketball player, is working on the Cardinals' practice squad with hopes of making the 53-man roster.
But Fells is proof that people can make the most out of second chances.

Basketball was good to him, taking Fells around the world and filling his bank account. He played in Belgium, Finland, Mexico and Argentina.

About two years ago, however, the passion for the game that drew him toward it against everyone's expectations began to wane. But Fells didn't know how to quit. As the seasons wore on, he knew more and more basketball wasn't for him. He loved lifting and being in the weight room. He was a physical player in a game that was shifting toward the finesse.

Those feelings piqued last year and Fells knew it was time to walk away.

"It just got to the point where I felt like something was missing," Fells said. "Basketball wasn't what I was looking for. I talked to my brother (former NFL tight end Daniel Fells), and he told me why don't I give football a try? I was like OK. I never thought about it but I'd give it a try."

Fells traded in his high tops for cleats, the hard wood for the perfectly manicured grass of football fields, and began training in California. He began training as a defensive end at the urging of his agent and the coaches at Athletes' Performance, and at his size, he'd be a formidable challenge for any offensive tackle.

Fells' first NFL tryout came with the Seattle Seahawks last summer. After 30 minutes of being put through a gauntlet of defensive end drills, which just "destroyed" Fells, he said, Seattle tight ends coach Pat McPherson approached Fells and asked him to run a few routes.

The last time Fells ran a route, in high school, Seattle coach Pete Carroll was still at the University of Southern California. But he ran five patterns as requested.

"I don't know how I looked," Fells said. "I probably looked really awkward out there but I guess I looked better than I thought."

Even though the Seahawks felt Fells was more natural at tight end than at defensive end, they were surprised he caught everything thrown his way.

"The first thing that popped in my head was, ‘You only threw the ball to me five times. What did you expect? Me to drop four out of five?'" Fells said with a smile. "It was weird. I said, ‘OK, thank you.'"

While he was waiting in the locker room after the tryout, Fells' phone rang. It was his agent calling to say Seattle was signing him to a three-year deal. Fells, still naïve to the practices of the NFL, was shocked himself. Three years? Why would they invest that much into him, of all people, such an unproven commodity? But Fells was explained that a three-year, non-guaranteed deal was standard in these situations. If he blew up to be the next Jimmy Graham, Seattle had him locked down for cheap. If he was a bust, they could cut him without a penalty. It was win-win for the team.

And Fells was just happy to have a shot.

But if Fells could've bottled the reaction when his friends and family found out he signed with Seattle, he'd still have it on his mantel at home. If they were shocked he decided to play college basketball instead of football, then this practically gave them all heart attacks. Especially his brother, who last played in the NFL in 2012 with the New England Patriots.

"He was like, 'Wait, what?'" Fells said with a laugh. "That's been everybody's reaction. Just shock. Even my girlfriend, my parents, my friends. People send articles to me on Facebook and it's like, ‘I think they spelled Daniel Fells wrong.'

"I'm like, ‘No, that's me. I'm going to Seattle.'"

The next question Fells usually got was: For basketball? Seattle doesn't have a basketball team anymore since the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008.

No, not basketball. Fells was a professional football player and was about to find out how tough it was to stay in the league. He lasted through OTAs, minicamp and training camp before Seattle released him during final cuts. If that was his first and last shot at the NFL, Fells felt good about it.

"Honestly, my whole feeling in this situation right now is still surreal to me," Fells said. "The first (preseason) game I was out there, I didn't even feel real. I just walked through the tunnel hearing the crowd roar and everything, I was just pinching myself like, ‘Is this really happening?' Exactly a year ago, I was overseas in Argentina, not even understanding the language, not even speaking Spanish, and next thing I know, I'm here in Seattle. It was crazy."

Three days after Seattle cut him, Fells said Arizona brought him in for a tryout. They put him through a different gauntlet, this time with Fells as a tight end. His fortune wasn't the same in Arizona. He didn't leave with a contract, but the Cardinals told him they liked what they saw. There wasn't room on the roster spot for him. Then Fells had a tryout with St. Louis and got the same answer.

He started seeing a trend.

Three weeks later, on Oct. 9, Arizona called Fells back and signed him to the practice squad.

For the better part of the past three months, Fells has been learning how to play tight end in the NFL facing one of the league's best defenses. With a stocked depth chart at tight end, it's not surprising Fells didn't see any action this season. He's still a project.

"He's got great hands, unbelievable body control for a tight end," Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. "Just (needs to) continue to work on his blocking. He's one of the guys, we were hoping in the open date that somebody would separate themselves, and they weren't quite ready. I really like where he's at. I think he's got a bright future.

"I won't talk too highly of him; somebody might try to poach him."

One way to avoid Fells from being poached is if he's promoted to the 53-man roster ahead of Sunday's game against San Francisco. That'd trigger his contract and make it impossible for another team to go after Fells until that contract expires.

Every day is another step forward for Fells, who said he's still making mistakes every day.
"I don't mind where I'm at," he said. "I would love to be moved up and be on that field and show them what I could do what little ability I have in the NFL.

"I definitely feel like I have potential," Fells said. "I'm not going to say a Jimmy Graham or Gronk kind of player, but I feel like I can help the team out."

Arizona obviously feels the same way. He's been giving the Cardinals' defense looks against a big, fast, physical tight end in practice. And his upside far outweighs his downside.

All Fells needs is time to grow.

"I feel," Fells said, "like I wouldn't be here if they weren't going to give me that shot at some point."
Andre Ellington and Richard Sherman AP PhotoAndre Ellington's Cardinals are after a playoff spot; Richard Sherman's Seahawks want the top seed.

Playoff standing is on the line for both the Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.

The Seahawks (12-2) would clinch the NFC West title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they get their 15th consecutive home victory. The Cardinals (9-5) see this as a must-win game to keep their postseason hopes alive.

ESPN.com Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount look at how these two division rivals match up:

Blount: Josh, the Cardinals didn’t look good in a 34-22 loss to Seattle in October, but since that time, the team has gone on an amazing roll, winning six of seven. Do you see that October game as having been a bit of a wake-up call for Arizona and motivation to turn things around?

Weinfuss: I think it was a breaking point of sorts. They were a deflated group after going to San Francisco and losing a tough game there, and then four days later, they had to play Seattle, which had put a nice beating on them the last time they played. After that game, the Cardinals had nine days to rest and absorb everything that just happened during the first seven weeks. The result was a clear understanding of the offense, and it’s showed with how well the offense has been playing.

Terry, have teams figured out how to slow down Russell Wilson’s running game like they have with Colin Kaepernick? If so, how has Seattle rewritten the script? If not, why is it so hard to stop?

Blount: That’s a fair question. Teams are trying to keep Wilson in the pocket, using an outside linebacker and/or defensive end to stay home and spy any Wilson attempt to run outside. The 49ers did a great job of that in their 19-17 victory over the Seahawks two weeks ago. But when a defense takes one thing away from Wilson, he burns it somewhere else. One of the things that makes him so successful is his ability to find the weak spot in any defense. Having said that, he did rush for 50 yards Sunday against the Giants.

No doubt the Cardinals remember what happened at Seattle last season in the Seahawks' 58-0 victory. Josh, how different is this Arizona team from that one a season ago?

Weinfuss: It’s like night and day. Everything about them is different, with the exception of the defense, which is still a good unit. Last season in Seattle was Arizona’s worst defensive showing and, as if they timed it perfectly, the Cardinals got this season’s anomaly out of the way last Sunday in Tennessee. Everything about this team is clicking at a better rate than it was in October. The defense is playing faster than it was then, but the secondary will still be finding its rhythm after a new rotation was implemented to replace Tyrann Mathieu. There’s no question that the offense is 180 degrees from where it was last season in Seattle, namely because of the quarterback. By this point last season, Arizona had started three different quarterbacks. This season, that position is thriving under Carson Palmer.

Terry, what’s the latest with Percy Harvin? Will his return help this team, which has been on an incredible roll this season, or will it disrupt the chemistry? Should he come back?

Blount: The entire Harvin saga has become a bit clandestine at this point, and I honestly think the whole situation is more of an annoyance than anything else. Look, Harvin is a once-in-a-generation talent, and his explosiveness could benefit the Seahawks in the playoffs, but you bring up an excellent point. If he does return now, is it more of a disruption than an asset? He certainly could help the team on kickoff returns, but I believe the Seattle receiving corps is the most underrated in the league. This team is 12-2 without Harvin. Waiting until 2014 to unleash him might not be a bad idea.

Josh, no team in the league has a tougher final two games than the Cardinals, with Seattle and San Francisco. Most people would say the odds are against Arizona to win them and make the playoffs, but what is your sense of the confidence level among the players about these last two games?

Weinfuss: Bruce Arians has his men believing they can go to the playoffs, but at the same time, I think they understand it’s a difficult task. A lot has to happen -- namely a combination of San Francisco having to lose one or both of its final two games with the Carolina Panthers doing essentially the same -- but I won’t bore you with all those details. They’ve been treating every game like a playoff game for about a month and a half now, so mentally, they understand what’s at stake, but they’re also realists.

Terry, has Pete Carroll put any thought into resting his starters against Arizona, or since home-field advantage is still in play, will they be on full tilt?

Blount: It’s absolutely all-out for this one, Josh. The Seahawks say over and over that the goal is to go 1-0 each week and each game is a championship opportunity. It might be a cliché, but it’s real this time. Seattle wants to get this over with, clinch home-field advantage and be able to use next week’s season finale against St. Louis as a glorified practice session.

A weekly examination of the Cardinals' ESPN.com Power Ranking:

Preseason: 26 | Last Week: 13 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002

Welcome back. After a dismal performance in Philadelphia knocked the Cardinals out of the top 10, a nearly perfect outing by quarterback Carson Palmer helped push Arizona back among the best teams in the league. Sunday’s win over the Rams was Arizona’s first in the NFC West since Week 1 of 2012 and it showed the offensive ingenuity of coach Bruce Arians.

Because of his injured elbow, Palmer didn’t throw a single pass in practice, Arians said, so the coach simply reworked the game plan to help Palmer and to avoid a stout St. Louis pass rush. It worked, as Palmer had the highest completion percentage for an NFC quarterback this season who threw it at least 25 times.

Sure, the game was at home and it was against a Rams team that doesn’t know which squad will show up each week. But the ability of Arians to adapt and of Palmer to react could make this team dangerous down the stretch. That being said, Arizona dropped the proverbial ball against a playoff team on the road against the Eagles, so a lot can be taken away from Sunday’s road game against Tennessee.

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