NFC West: Jared Veldheer

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- With another summer in the books, it’s that time of the year again. Football is back. The Arizona Cardinals report to training camp Friday and will have their conditioning test in the early afternoon. Camp starts in earnest Saturday with the first of five straight practices.

And with the beginning of camp comes a plethora of questions. Here are my top 10, and No. 1 should be no surprise:

When will defensive back Tyrann Mathieu return?

It is looking less likely that Mathieu will return during any part of training camp. He was put on the preseason physically unable to perform list, which means he can do everything with the team except practice. And as soon as he is able to practice during training camp or preseason, he is allowed to come off the PUP list. If that occurs, it likely won’t be until the final weeks of August. Arizona doesn’t want to rush Mathieu back. Any setback with his LCL could lead to long-term issues. The Cardinals are not in a rush, even though I have heard his rehab is ahead of schedule.

Will the offense be able to pick up where it left off?

Like any new season, there will be an adjustment period so new and old players can get used to each other, but that shouldn’t last very long. The Cardinals can make major strides during camp if the offense doesn’t digress much from where it left off in the final nine games of the season. They seem to have added the missing pieces, so all signs point to them building quickly on the foundation set in 2013.

Who will win position battles at right tackle and right guard?

Each battle has essentially come down to a two-man race. At right tackle Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie will continue to duke it out. Will the time away have helped either? Only the next month can answer that. Next to them, second-year guard Earl Watford will be pushing starter Paul Fanaika. The coaching staff knows what Fanaika is capable of, so Watford needs to impress during camp to win the job. Then there is the possibility of someone not on the roster now starting Week 1.

Who will replace linebacker Daryl Washington?

At this point there is really one legitimate option -- a linebacker by committee, leading with Larry Foote -- unless head coach Bruce Arians has changed his opinion that Foote is not a three-down linebacker. During camp, Foote, Ernie Sims and Lorenzo Alexander will be given an opportunity to earn the job, but rookies Glenn Carson and Jonathan Brown would have to really impress to find the field. As with right guard, there is the possibility of someone not on the roster now starting Week 1.

Can place-kicker Jay Feely keep his job?

Yes and No. Feely knows Arians isn’t afraid to try someone else out for the job. Arians loves competition, which is why he brought in two other kickers to push Feely. Danny Hrapmann is a journeyman, but rookie Chandler Catanzaro might have what it takes to outkick Feely. I wouldn’t be surprise if Catanzaro wins the job.

Can running back Andre Ellington carry a full load?

Ask anyone who knows Ellington and the answer is yes. But in order for Ellington to succeed in that role as Arizona’s feature back, he needs to stay healthy. Arians said during the offseason that he wants Ellington to get 25-30 touches per game. A little ambitious, but we’ll see how he is used during camp.

How healthy are the injured players?

The list is long, but the first few days of camp will be telling. A lot of eyes will be on left guard Jonathan Cooper (leg) and left tackle Jared Veldheer (tricep). Cooper missed all of his rookie season with a broken leg, and Veldheer returned from a tricep injury for the final five games. Three linebackers -- Sam Acho (leg), Alexander (foot) and Alex Okafor (biceps) -- will also be returning to practice, and each of them has something to prove after John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy filled in for them and flourished last season.

Are cornerback Antonio Cromartie's hip issues a thing of the past?

A hip flexor hampered Cromartie for the majority of 2012, but he claims he’s fine. In order for the Cardinals’ secondary to be as good as advertised, he needs to be as healthy as he says he is. A lot of attention will be paid to him in the first week of camp.

Can Carson Palmer cut down his interceptions?

Palmer tied for second-most interceptions in the NFL last season. Of his 22, 14 were in the first eight games when the Cardinals were figuring out Arians’ scheme. Logic would say the interceptions will go down, but Palmer has a penchant for underthrowing deep balls. With an improved knowledge of the offense and the lessons learned from last season, his interceptions should be reduced.

Will the defense regress without Karlos Dansby and Washington?

Arians came out this week and said it would not, but it will be tough for the defense not to regress at least a little. Not only is the veteran quarterback of the defense gone (Dansby), but so is its most athletic player (Washington). What they were able to do by covering sideline-to-sideline, helping plug the run and lining up in coverage might not be replaced by Kevin Minter and Foote, or whoever takes over for Washington. In place of the veteran Dansby setting up the defense, the inexperienced Minter will be charged with that role, at least for the time being.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

May, 29, 2014
May 29
By almost everyone’s estimation, the rough and rugged NFC West was the best division in the NFL in 2013. It had the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, two teams in the NFC Championship Game (Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers) and another 10-game winner in the Arizona Cardinals. The St. Louis Rams were 7-9 but likely would have had a winning season in any other division.

And now? Other than adding Godzilla and three superheroes to the four teams, they could not get much better. It looks like the big boys on the NFC block will remain out west.

Most experts believe the Rams had one of the best drafts in the NFL, adding Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson and Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, giving St. Louis four first-round picks on what is arguably the best defensive line in football.

The 49ers had 12 draft picks, including seven in the first four rounds, and made a trade during the draft for talented Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson.

The Cardinals signed gigantic left tackle Jared Veldheer and blazing kick returner Ted Ginn in free agency. They also added a vicious hitter, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, with their first draft pick.

As always happens with Super Bowl champs, the Seahawks lost a few key players to free agency, but they kept the man they really wanted to keep in defensive end Michael Bennett and locked up "Legion of Boom" stars Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to long-term deals.

Believe it or not, the best division in the NFL just got better.

First Down

As usual, the Seahawks drafted some players other teams would have taken later, if at all. Should people question their choices, or have they earned the benefit of the doubt?

Terry Blount: Have we learned nothing from the past? Questioning Seattle's draft strategy, along with undrafted signees, now seems a little foolish. Shall I name a few who stand out that other teams passed up or the experts questioned? Sherman, Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin and Malcolm Smith, for starters. The Seahawks bring in players with specific traits -- unusual athleticism, driving competitiveness and obvious intelligence. Where those players rank on another team's draft board means nothing to them. And at first glance from rookie camp, they found some winners in receivers Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood, along with defensive end Cassius Marsh.

Nick Wagoner: At this point, it's hard to argue with the results the Seahawks are getting from the players they draft. It is interesting that it seems like the first-round picks (such as James Carpenter and Bruce Irvin) are the ones who seem to struggle most relative to draft position. But the thing Seattle does so well is find players who fit the confines of who they want to be on both sides of the ball. Then they develop them and have them ready to go. It is why they never seem to miss a beat when injuries hit or a player is suspended. The results speak for themselves.

Josh Weinfuss: A little leeway should be given to the Seahawks because, first, they are the reigning NFL champions, and second, their personnel department has been able to piece together a pretty good roster with players who were not highly rated. With that being said, good will should only go so far. Sometimes a general manager and coach think they have the secret recipe and get cocky about their ability to find talent. When that happens, bad decisions are made. Obviously, the Seahawks have a reputation for picking good players, but they won't be right every time. Every team has an off draft and picks who don't pan out. It is also too early for us to know if some of their "rogue" picks will do anything. Their picks should definitely be questioned until they have a chance to show us their stuff.

Bill Williamson: The glue to the Seahawks is general manager John Schneider. Yes, coach Pete Carroll is a tremendous fit for the franchise and is a big part of the team's success. But Schneider is the architect of this franchise. He built this roster. There is little doubting the way he has drafted. Look at the core of the team -- they were all great value choices by Schneider. The tie goes to Schneider. You can doubt him if you choose, but it would be a lousy idea. Expect these Seattle rookies to develop into players. Schneider always wins.

Second Down

Do the additions of Johnson and Carlos Hyde give the 49ers the most dangerous offense in the division?

Blount: Both players will help, but the real key for the 49ers is quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Having enough weapons wasn't really the problem. Using them effectively on a consistent basis and cutting down on mistakes is the issue. Kaepernick's extraordinary talent is unquestioned. But can he be the same type of team leader that Wilson is and make the big play in the most difficult moments? He couldn't do it last year in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game. If he shows he can do that consistently when the big game is on the line, watch out.

Wagoner: Well, the competition for that crown isn't exactly daunting in a division known mostly for grinding it out offensively and dominating defensively. But the 49ers probably do have the most dangerous offense in the division. I don't personally think Johnson or Hyde will be a major difference-maker right away, but they don't have to be. Putting Johnson with a healthy Michael Crabtree at receiver and tight end Vernon Davis should allow Johnson to operate free of the pressure of being a No. 1 wideout. Hyde can learn from Frank Gore before taking over the reins. In terms of top-to-bottom talent across the roster, yes, the 49ers look to have the most dangerous offense in the NFC West.

Weinfuss: It is certainly looking like the 49ers have one of the most dangerous offenses in the division, if not the most dangerous. San Francisco has the right pieces at every position, from quarterback to running back to wide receiver to tight end. But the first question that came to mind when going through San Francisco's offensive depth chart is this: Will one football be enough to go around? This might turn into a case of the 49ers being better on paper than they are on the field, which has happened many times throughout the NFL. The Cardinals bolstered their skill positions during the offseason, giving themselves a lot of talent at wide receiver and tight end to complement two young running backs and a veteran quarterback who finds ways to win. A team can have all the ammunition in the world, but if the coach doesn't know how to use it, it will be stockpiled for naught.

Williamson: I think so. There is nothing missing from this offense. We saw how dynamic it can be when Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles last December. Put Crabtree, the clutch Anquan Boldin and Johnson together and that is a great veteran group of receivers. Someone is always going to be open. Rookie Bruce Ellington was added to give the 49ers the ability to take the top off of defenses, an aspect they didn't possess last season. We didn't even mention Davis at tight end. Really, how is this offense going to be stopped? Kaepernick looked like a completely different quarterback when Crabtree played last season. Kaepernick with all of these weapons? Oh, and we didn't even mention the bread and butter of the 49ers' offense -- the running game. Hyde, Gore and a healthy Marcus Lattimore? How do you defend this group?

Third Down

After a narrow miss last season, have the Cardinals made enough of the right moves to get into the playoffs?

Blount: I don't think they needed to make many moves to reach the playoffs. Record-wise, they were a playoff team last season, but a victim of circumstances in the playoff structure. So the real question is can the Cardinals catch Seattle and/or San Francisco? And my answer is yes, especially the 49ers. Quarterback Carson Palmer will be better after having a full season in the Arizona offense. Bruce Arians might be the most underrated coach in the NFL. The team clearly is on the rise, while San Francisco's offseason turmoil could come back to bite it.

Wagoner: I like what Arizona did this offseason. The offensive line should be much better with the addition of Veldheer and the return of Jonathan Cooper. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie was a nice pickup, and first-round safety Bucannon should be a good complement to the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu. But it is still going to be difficult for them to make the playoffs. The Seahawks and 49ers remain at the top of the heap, and until we see otherwise, it's hard to see how they fall from that perch unless injuries strike. That would still leave one playoff spot for the Cardinals. Three teams from the same division can make the playoffs, and it just happened last season, but I expect Arizona to take a small step back and just miss the cut again.

Weinfuss: The Cardinals have made enough moves to make the playoffs this season. They missed the postseason a year ago by a game, which might have been different if Arizona had been stocked with a better kick returner, left tackle, second cornerback and safety. The Cards addressed those issues in the offseason, which should make them better in 2014. Adding left tackle Veldheer to anchor the offensive line should ease Arians' concerns about Palmer's blind side. One thing Ginn has shown throughout his career is that he can return kicks with the best. But the biggest difference for the Cards will be their improved secondary. Signing talented veteran Cromartie gives the Cardinals two lockdown cornerbacks (along with Patrick Peterson) and drafting Bucannon gave Arizona an instant upgrade against tight ends and big receivers -- which there are plenty of in NFC West.

Williamson: I really like how well the Cardinals are coached. I think Arians is on to something. His players seem to respond to him. So the program will continue to rise under Arians. Also, I love the defense; it is nasty, aggressive and ball-hawking. Add great defense and a well-respected coaching staff and a team is going to win a lot of games. I think the bottom line with the Cardinals is quarterback play. Palmer had his moments last season, but I'm not a big believer in him. I think he will cost the Cardinals at some point. Maybe this is a playoff team, but I think the Cardinals are a couple of steps behind the Seahawks and the 49ers. The deficit starts at quarterback.

Fourth Down

The Rams decided not to draft help at wide receiver and waited until the sixth round to add a young quarterback. Will their offense score enough to make up ground in the NFC West?

Blount: Sure, it would have helped to add a top receiver, but is there a bigger unknown in the entire division than Sam Bradford? What the Rams, and everyone else, have to find out is whether Bradford is an elite quarterback. Frankly, I have my doubts, but he did play well last season before his injury. Bradford's situation is much different than that of Kaepernick, who is as gifted a player physically as you will ever see. In Bradford's case, it's hard to know how good he really is or can be, because he hasn't had top talent around him. And it doesn't help that he has to play six games against three of the of the best defenses in the NFL. It's time for Bradford to step up, no matter whom he is throwing the ball to each week.

Wagoner: The Rams are clearly hoping they will be able to win games in classic heavyweight slugfests by playing good defense and running the ball. The Rams did put up points against playoff teams like New Orleans and Indianapolis without Bradford, and most of the same cast of characters returns this season. The question is if they can score enough to overcome teams following a similar blueprint within the division? Adding Robinson and running back Tre Mason and having a full season of Rodger Saffold at guard should certainly help the run game. But until one or more of the young receivers proves himself and Bradford can consistently take advantage of play-action opportunities down the field, I don't see the offense being able to do enough to win games without the help of a special-teams or defensive score from week to week. The Rams should be better against division foes than they were a year ago and might be able to push Arizona, but it still seems unlikely it will be enough to overtake Seattle or San Francisco.

Weinfuss: The depth of the NFC West makes this the toughest question of the four. The Rams' additions weren't significant improvements to their offense, but will help. Bradford will come back with a vengeance and try to light up the scoreboard. He will have a talented group of receivers, but can they score enough to close the gap from the bottom of the West? Not sure that can happen. Rookie Robinson will take his lumps and bruises and might not come into his own until the second half of the season, so the Rams have to be hoping it's not too late by then. Points will be at a premium in the West, especially considering how good the three other defenses are, so the Rams will have to be even better than expected to make up ground, and I'm not sure they are ready for that just yet.

Williamson: Points scored? Who needs points with that defense. Man, the Rams' defense is getting silly good. Adding Donald to that defensive front should have been banned. It's simply unfair. The Rams are not going to allow many points this season. So the offense won't have to be overly dynamic. With that said, I am not a big Bradford fan. I don't think he is the answer. Until the Rams upgrade at quarterback, I don't think they will reach their full potential or be able to hang in the division race. But they will dangerous every week because of the defense.


Cardinals offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
May 22
» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

 With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the Arizona Cardinals' offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeVeldheer_ Jared 130816
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesNew left tackle Jared Veldheer gives the Cardinals an established veteran at a position of need.
Best move: Adding left tackle Jared Veldheer early in free agency solidified a position that has plagued the team for years. He is a top-tier tackle who can protect quarterback Carson Palmer's blind side, a move that was necessary to keep the veteran Palmer as healthy as possible as the Cardinals make a run for the playoffs. Veldheer also showed a change in philosophy in the Cards’ front office. Going after a big name early in free agency showed the Cards' commitment to making a postseason push.

Riskiest move: Adding a 30-year-old cornerback with a recent history of hip issues isn’t exactly the most sound move, which is why signing Antonio Cromartie was the riskiest move for the Cardinals this offseason. But if Cromartie is healthy, he also can be the most rewarding move. It is yet to be seen how healthy Cromartie actually is. By signing him, Arizona moved Jerraud Powers, last season’s starter at cornerback across from Patrick Peterson, to the bench. If Cromartie doesn't pan out, the Cards would have to go back to Powers.

Most surprising move: Not taking a right tackle in the draft was the most surprising move because of the need at the position. The Cardinals didn’t re-sign last season's starting right tackle, Eric Winston, leaving the position up for grabs between Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie. Instead of grooming a rookie in case Sowell and Massie do not pan out, the Cardinals will sign a free agent or bring back Winston.

Smartest move: Without realizing it, the Cardinals’ smartest move this offseason might have been signing Ted Ginn. The veteran speedster will be Arizona’s third wide receiver and its kick returner. He will be an instant upgrade at both and already has started to draw rave reviews from teammates. His addition gives them an established player at both positions, and his resume speaks for itself.
They hope the work they've done on Saturdays in the spring will pay off on Sundays in the fall.

Neither tackle Jared Veldheer nor guard Jonathan Cooper -- who'll combine to be the Arizona Cardinals' starting left side of the offensive line -- have played a regular-season game in an Arizona jersey. Veldheer was signed as a free agent in March and Cooper missed his rookie season in 2013 with a broken leg.

Cooper has been a staple in the Cards' locker room throughout his rehab but only recently has he begun building chemistry with Veldheer, his neighbor on the line, who made the move to Arizona a few weeks ago.

"He's been in there every time I've been in there," Veldheer said at the team's annual charity golf tournament. "We've gotten a chance to start forming that bond that you got to have when you're playing next to someone."

Together, they'll be charged with protecting the blind side of quarterback Carson Palmer, who was sacked 41 times in 2013. And while that's still a high total -- about 2.5 per game -- it was 17 fewer than Arizona allowed in 2012.

Chemistry is key for Cooper and Veldheer.

It doesn't matter what day of the week it is, they're working, even if it's the offensive line playing a round of golf together.

"There's some Saturday mornings where we could just come in on our own and both of us will show up and do some work together and talk a little bit," Cooper said.

Cooper, who broke his fibula in the third preseason game of 2013, said he's almost back at 100 percent. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians thinks Cooper is "looking great."

"For the most part I'm full go," Cooper said. "There's some movements that still irritate me a little bit, but for the most part I'm full go."
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.

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.

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.

Free-agency review: Cardinals

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
Most significant signing: Arizona vastly upgraded its offensive line when it signed left tackle Jared Veldheer. He gives the Cardinals an anchor on the left side, a position that hasn’t been solidified -- nor sturdy -- for the past 10 years. At 6-foot-8 and 320 pounds, Veldheer changed the complexion of how Arizona’s offense can work. The Cards now have an answer for the tough defensive ends and outside linebackers in the NFC West, putting one a few steps closer to becoming a playoff team.

Most significant loss: Without a doubt, Arizona’s biggest loss is inside linebacker Karlos Dansby. He provided a bridge between the secondary and defensive line, and was able to cross it seamlessly and often. Dansby’s loss will impact the defense because of his ability to go sideline to sideline. He had a career season in 2013 after shedding weight. Dansby was also the conductor of the defense and was held in high regard throughout the locker room.

Biggest surprise: The one name that’s stood out from the Cardinals’ haul thus far is Ted Ginn Jr. The speedy receiver is a perfect fit for Bruce Arians’ offense but his addition wasn’t expected. Like Veldheer’s signing, the idea of signing Ginn became a reality when the Carolina Panthers didn’t make a strong push to re-sign him. By landing Ginn, Arizona has a dual-purpose player -- Ginn can assume the kick returner role, while being a solid backup for Patrick Peterson on punt returns -- and will be Arizona’s third receiver, the one whose speed can take the top off defenses.

What’s next? The Cardinals solved a lot of their problems that plagued them throughout 2013, but there are still some areas left to be fixed. Arizona will target a right tackle, safety, cornerback and tight end during the second wave of free agency as well as in the draft. Of those, the Cards will most likely aim for a safety and tight end in the draft while trying to snag another offensive lineman or two and a cornerback in free agency. With that being said, the draft could yield a talented corner who would come at a cheaper price than some of the veterans on the team. General manager Steve Keim will still approach the second wave of free agency like he did the first: looking for instant-impact players. However the second wave may yield more veterans, who Arizona has utilized in the past, as well as a slew of backups.
Veldheer_ Jared 130816Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesThe Cardinals believe Jared Veldheer will be the offensive line's cornerstone for seasons to come.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Finding a left tackle in free agency is easy.

Finding one that's good enough to be the foundation of a team's offensive line for the foreseeable future is about as likely as hitting the Powerball -- in consecutive weeks.

Well, Wednesday was the Arizona Cardinals' lucky day.

"Any time you can find a left tackle, and not only a left tackle, a 26-year-old left tackle who's playing excellent football, it's a blessing in disguise," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said.

It'll be hard to hide all 6-foot-8, 330 pounds of this blessing. But the good news is that Arizona shouldn't be praying much anymore for Carson Palmer's blind side to be protected.

As free agency approached, Arizona had narrowed its focus on Jared Veldheer, and when the Oakland Raiders decided not to put the franchise tag on him, Keim went all in. His first call on Saturday, the first day of the NFL's three-day negotiating period, was to Aaron Veldheer, Jared's older brother and agent. Arizona was aggressive with its pursuit of Veldheer, who had blocked for Palmer in 2011 and 2012 in Oakland.

By that point, Arizona knew what they were getting. Grading Veldheer was the easiest part of evaluating him for Keim.

Palmer said Veldheer is "very difficult to bull rush," that he's " ... quick. He looks like he's 8-feet tall. He moves really, really well. He moves like a shorter tackle. And he's a monster in the run game. He mauls people."

Keim added: "You can see his size. When guys go speed to power on him, he just engulfs people."

But Keim wanted to know who Veldheer was as a person, as a teammate, as a man.

As Keim explained, getting to the core of a college prospect is easy. Teams have access to coaches, professors, teammates and advisors. Finding out who an NFL free agent is on the inside comes with its own set of hurdles. Fortunately for Arizona, the Cardinals had two built-in references. Cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross was with the Raiders during Veldheer's first two seasons in Oakland. And Palmer trusted Vehldeer with his health for two straight years.

When Keim called Palmer, he asked questions he already knew the answers to, the quarterback said. It was almost as if Palmer was there just to reaffirm the decision Keim was about to make.

"You could tell [Keim had] done plenty of research and turned over every stone and asked me some questions that I think he kinda ended up stating the answer and I just said, ‘Yeah, that's correct, that's correct, that's correct,'" Palmer said.

Between Ross and Palmer, Keim could paint an accurate picture of who Veldheer was: a hard-working, blue collar and talented football player who Palmer raved about as a teammate.

But it was from Ross that Keim and coach Bruce Arians learned one nugget of information that made them want Veldheer even more.

"I think when Bruce and I found out from Kevin Ross that Jared had been known from time to time to scrap on the practice field, he went up in our book," Keim said. "He's our kind of guy."

Keim wouldn't tout him as the next best thing, saying Veldheer still has room to work on his footwork and sets. But, as Keim pointed out, Veldheer will work at it.

"The one thing that I think stood out to Bruce and I about Jared is here's a guy coming out of small Hillsdale College, he goes in the third round to Oakland and all the success that he's had to this point, he's earned," Keim said. "Not only has he earned it but he's got tremendous upside and is still growing as a player from a technical standpoint."

If there's one thing Veldheer doesn't mind doing it's putting in the work.

He gained more than 60 pounds in college by living in the weight room while maintaining his flexibility and athleticism. As a freshman at Hillsdale, he began focusing on his nutrition and strength, his college coach, Keith Otterbein, said. He was a late bloomer, emerging as an NFL prospect in his third year of college.

"I try to control my attitude and my work ethic," Veldheer said. "Really optimizing those two things is what I believe is the recipe for success. Just sticking with those things and wanting to become a better player each and every day I'm here is ultimately what I think is going to be what it takes to get to where I want to go.

"I don't really pay much attention to people saying you might be on the cusp of this or that. I just focus on trying to help my team and be accountable to them and then continue to improve my game, my techniques and really improve to be the best player I can be."

The cusp was left in Oakland.

Veldheer's made it, signing a five-year contract worth $35 million on Wednesday, about 30 minutes before he met the Arizona media for the first time. Framed in a gray suit with red tie, Vehldeer answered the questions, clearly not one to embrace the spotlight like his head coach and general manager.

He'd rather fly under the radar and let someone else get the attention, at least off the field.

In between the hashmarks, he's about as shy as his head coach.

"If there's something that needs to be said, I'm not afraid to say something or to help someone out if you see something, to encourage or let someone know, 'That's an awesome block right there,' 'Way to help me out,' or 'We've just destroyed that guy on a double team,'" Veldheer said.

It's no wonder Arians and Keim liked Veldheer from day one. He's just like them.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Cardinals knew they would have to pay for a left tackle and approached free agency with that mindset, but they weren’t going to break the bank in the process. They stayed true to their convictions when they signed left tackle Jared Veldheer to a five-year contract worth $35 million, which included a $6.25 million signing bonus.

Veldheer’s base salary in 2014 is $1.25 million, which is fully guaranteed. Add in the signing bonus, and Veldheer will earn $7.5 million.

In 2015, Veldeer’s base salary jumps to $6 million -- $3 million of which is guaranteed in the event of an injury, and the rest becomes fully guaranteed on the third day of the league year. He’ll earn a $500,000 roster bonus, as well.

Veldheer’s base salary increases again in 2016 to $6.5 million with another $500,000 roster bonus. The base salary is fully guaranteed. The numbers are steady in 2017 and 2018. Veldheer will earn $6.5 million in base each year and another $500,000 roster bonus each season.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- So why didn’t left tackle Jared Veldheer stay with the Raiders?

Look no further than his mother’s twitter account for an answer.

In response to a fan’s declaration that they wanted Veldheer to remain in the Black and Silver, Mary Veldheer said her son, who agreed to a five-year contract reportedly worth $35 million with the Cardinals on Tuesday, didn’t get a reasonable deal from the Raiders.

With more than $64 million in cap space heading into Tuesday, the Raiders opted not to franchise Veldheer. That gave him the ability to negotiate with other teams, which turned into the deal with Arizona.

Rodger Saffold, who the Raiders signed Tuesday to replace Veldheer, agreed to a five-year deal worth $42.5 million.

Mary Veldheer also speculated that Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie wasn’t a fan of her son.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Next up at left tackle for the Arizona Cardinals, Jared Veldheer.

Veldheer will become the latest in a long line of poor souls charged with protecting the blind side of a Cardinals’ quarterback. Let me be the first to say, good luck. Since Arizona drafted Levi Brown fifth overall in 2007 -- two picks before Adrian Peterson went to the Minnesota Vikings -- the Cards have suited up seven left tackles. With Veldheer and the Cardinals agreeing to a five-year contract Tuesday worth $35 million, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, make it eight. And, the Cardinals hope, the last for a while.

[+] EnlargeJared Veldheer
AP Photo/ Bill NicholsFormer Raiders left tackle Jared Veldheer will be counted on to solidify Arizona's offensive line.
There are two unenviable positions on the Cardinals, and following quarterback -- a position this team hasn’t had success at save for current starter, Carson Palmer, and Kurt Warner -- left tackle is a close second. All of Arizona’s offensive issues for the past few years have been blamed on those two positions. Bad pass? Not just the quarterback’s fault. The left tackle missed a block. Busted run? The left tackle didn’t run fast enough. Sack? No matter if it came off the right side, it was the left tackle’s fault.

For years, Cardinals’ fans wanted Brown to be replaced. When it finally happened after Week 4, when Arizona traded Brown to Pittsburgh and promoted Bradley Sowell, the fan base almost immediately wanted Brown back.

Nobody could win.

But with Veldheer, Arizona will have its best left tackle in at least 10 years. Maybe longer. He’s young, he’s talented and he’s proven, which is the key for Arizona. The Cardinals have taken tackles high in the draft -- Leonard Davis second overall in 2001 and Brown fifth overall in 2007 -- but they were unproven commodities. Veldheer comes in with a track record and was endorsed by Palmer, his teammate with Oakland in 2011 and 2012, during the recruitment process. According to Pro Football Focus, Veldheer has allowed 18 sacks since his rookie season of 2010 -- as many as Arizona allowed in the final eight games last season. In 2011, Palmer was sacked 17 times. In 2012, 26.

The biggest question mark, and it will be addressed during his upcoming physical, is how well Veldheer's left triceps has recovered from surgery in 2013 -- coincidentally the same injury that benched Brown in 2012.

Veldheer has a chance to establish himself as the best Cardinals left tackle since they moved to Arizona -- or at least since Lomas Brown made the Pro Bowl in 1996. But it won’t be an easy task in the NFC West. He’ll have to deal with St. Louis’ Robert Quinn, the waves of Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco’s Justin Smith. Did I say, good luck?

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim turned the franchise around in a hurry last season with some very good free-agent signings, but it's possible none will be as important as Veldheer for the team’s future. He turns 27 in June, and along with left guard Jonathan Cooper will be the foundation of the offensive line for the next five years.

As long as he comes to work every day and keeps Palmer upright and keeps those guys out of the backfield, he’ll be considered a success here. It won’t take much. The bar isn’t high.
Trent Williams' substance-abuse suspension for the final four games of the 2011 season delivered another blow to the 2010 draft's offensive tackles.

Five of the first 10 tackles drafted that year are unavailable to their teams, including the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Okung and the St. Louis Rams' Rodger Saffold.

Seven of the 10 are starters or would be starters if healthy.

Okung was playing as well as any of them when Trent Cole's takedown ended his season. Saffold, slowed by back and ankle problems at various points, was struggling in his second season starting with the Rams. The San Francisco 49ers' Anthony Davis, though improved, continues to struggle some in pass protection.

The chart shows the first 10 tackles drafted. A few other potential tackles, including Denver's Zane Beadles, projected to guard in the NFL. They were not listed.

The Oakland Raiders' Bruce Campbell remains on the list even though he has been a backup guard to this point. He projected at tackle coming out of college and still could wind up there.

Three things revisited: 49ers-Raiders

August, 21, 2011
Looking back upon three things discussed here before the San Francisco 49ers' 17-3 victory against the Oakland Raiders on Saturday night:

1. Progress on offense. The 49ers opened the game with a 16-play drive to the Oakland 2. Their first four drives in the preseason opener totaled 12 plays. That is progress. Alex Smith completed 8 of 13 passes for 126 yards and one interception. He made good use of timing throws to beat pressure early in the game, another improvement. One pass for Vernon Davis on a quick slant drew a pass-interference penalty. Another found Braylon Edwards after the 6-foot-3 receiver pushed off without officials noticing. On the down side, Smith didn't see Raiders defensive end Matt Shaughnessy dropping into coverage on a third-and-8 play. Schaughnessy picked off Smith's pass intended for Davis, killing the 49ers' second drive. The highlight for Smith and San Francisco: Edwards' one-handed, diving grab for a 32-yard gain. Overall, the 49ers can feel better about how their offense is performing.

2. More Aldon Smith. The 49ers' rookie first-round draft choice worked with the starters late in the first half. Before that, Smith affected the game without even being on the field. His presence on the roster and strong showing in the first preseason game gave the man ahead of him on the depth chart, Parys Haralson, ample incentive. Haralson stood out early in the game, including when he brought down Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell for a fourth-down sack in the red zone. Once Campbell left the game injured, backup Trent Edwards threw an interception into double coverage even though Raiders left tackle Jared Veldheer locked down Smith on the play. Early in the third quarter, Smith fought off Raiders tight end Brandon Myers to make a tackle against the run. Later, Smith beat backup left tackle Seth Wand to the inside, pressuring Kyle Boller into an incomplete pass on third-and-7.

3. Right guard Chilo Rachal. The 49ers are seeking better consistency from their right guard. They got it during a 16-play drive to open the game. Rachal caught my attention early by peeling off his original man, Richard Seymour, to pick up Tommy Kelly. Rachal's awareness on the third-down play allowed Smith to find Davis for a reception past the first-down marker. Later in the drive, Rachal pulled to the right and impeded Jerome Boyd just long enough for Anthony Dixon to reach the corner for a 12-yard gain on second-and-10. As the drive wound down, Rachal trapped Shaughnessy to free Frank Gore for a 4-yard gain to the 2. On the 49ers' second drive, Rachal strung out Kelly long enough for Dixon to cut back and knife into the secondary for a 9-yard gain. The 49ers ran the ball almost at will and Rachal did his part from what I could tell. His replacement, Tony Wragge, helped spring Kendall Hunter for a 53-yard touchdown run.

A few thoughts on the 49ers in Week 6

October, 19, 2010
A few thoughts and observations after watching the San Francisco 49ers' 17-9 victory over the Oakland Raiders in Week 6:
  • The offense lacked rhythm. Alex Smith's quick pass to Ted Ginn Jr. on a slant pattern was one exception. Overall, though, it seems as though Smith could not find or did not have available to him quick outlets against pressure. He wound up risking sacks or running from the pocket without purpose. The Raiders' press coverage might have presented challenges on timing routes, but the 49ers' offense has looked this way in other games, too.
  • Smith came very close to connecting with Josh Morgan on a deep ball to open the 49ers' first possession. Cornerback Stanford Routt might have slowed Morgan as the ball was arriving, but it was tough to say for sure. That play and a reverse to Ginn showed some aggressiveness.
  • What is Smith's strength? What is the one thing he does really well? The Rams' Sam Bradford throws with exceptional accuracy when running on designed rollouts. The Seattle Seahawks' Matt Hasselbeck can push the offensive tempo quickly enough to keep a defense off-balance. For Smith, sometimes it's throwing the intermediate seam route to Vernon Davis. Watching this game against the Raiders, nothing stood out. Some of that might stem from the design of the offense. Again, there isn't much rhythm to the passing game.
  • Brian Westbrook gained 19 yards the only time he touched the ball. I wouldn't want to remove Frank Gore from the field, either, but if Westbrook has that much spring in his step, a few more touches would make sense.
  • Rookie left guard Mike Iupati stands straight up sometimes and it costs him leverage. It really is all about technique for him, as teammates and coaches have indicated previously.
  • Rookie right tackle Anthony Davis ran across the formation and smashed into the Raiders' Trevor Scott, crumpling the 255-pound defensive end. Gore gained 15 yards on the first-quarter running play. Rookie tight end Nate Byham also made a key block, occupying defensive end Lamarr Houston.
  • Rookie strong safety Taylor Mays appears close to making big plays. He did force a fumble with a big hit in the red zone. He nearly picked off a couple passes. The Raiders appeared to fool him on a reverse, but coach Mike Singletary said Mays wasn't the problem on that play. Singletary credited Mays for hustling to make the tackle. Speaking of hustle, I noticed receiver Michael Crabtree hustling downfield to block during Frank Gore's 64-yard run. Good play by Crabtree.
  • Defensive end Justin Smith isn't catching my attention the way he has in the past. I focused on him in this game. Smith disrupted a running play after getting a few plays off (Demetric Evans rotates with him). Raiders rookie left tackle Jared Veldheer shoved Smith out of the way on a subsequent play.
  • Inside linebacker Patrick Willis delivered the most forceful hit of the game, I thought. Raiders tackle Mario Henderson appeared unprepared for what awaited when he stepped into Willis' turf in the middle of the field. Henderson was carrying himself too upright as he led running back Michael Bush. Willis approached Henderson, crouched ever so slightly and launched his upper body into Henderson's chest just below the shoulder pads. The result? Willis basically tackled Bush with Henderson. Scary.
  • Officials didn't throw a flag when Raiders tackle Langston Walker essentially clotheslined 49ers outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks as Brooks rushed off the edge. That couldn't have felt very good.

Overall, the 49ers defense played one of its better games. The offense was hit-and-miss.

Update: seanpatrickriley points out in the comments that Smith has been effective in the red zone. That is true. The 49ers scored only one touchdown in three red zone trips against Oakland, though. And quite a few quarterbacks have very good stats in the red zone -- Jason Campbell has a 99.4 rating in the red zone this season, for example -- but Smith has been especially effective there. He has seven touchdown passes and no interceptions in the red zone this season.

Chat wrap: Marshall trade thoughts

April, 15, 2010
The latest NFC West chat came and went without much from Cardinals fans. The 26th overall pick just isn't as much of a talker. Transcript here. Highlights below:
six (albany ny): Mike, what's your opinion/take on the Brandon Marshall-to-Miami trade?

Mike Sando: My opinion is that the Broncos did a great job getting value in return, and the Seahawks were a victim of that. Seattle really lost out on a chance to get a rare talent, but when the price exceeded the Seahawks' realistic means, the team bowed out instead of panicking. That had to be hard, but giving up a second this year and a second next year would have left Seattle without second- or third-round choices for consecutive years. And that would have been tough.

will (slc ): Cody Brown, second-rounder last year for the Cards. What kinda season or player can he be? He was a good player at UConn.

Mike Sando: That's an important question for the Cardinals. The word on Brown was that he was very raw and would need some seasoning. That's why his injury was so costly. It was serious and really set him back. He's a guy to keep in the back of your mind. Don't expect much, but keep him on your radar. The Cardinals haven't seen enough of him to know what to expect right away.

Mike Murphy (Wood River, IL): Hi Mike, big fan of yours by the way. I'm a Rams fan and my question is, do you see them trading the first pick to the Browns and if so, what would you see them getting in return? And also, who do you see the Rams getting with the 33rd pick if they don't trade up or down to get a couple extra picks?

Mike Sando: The Browns' entire draft is worth 2,692 points on the trade-value chart. The first overall pick is worth 3,000 points on that chart. Let's say the 3,000 figure is overvalued. Still, the Browns would have to give up too much, in my opinion. It just doesn't seem feasible. The top of the second round is where the Rams can hope to find a touchdown maker. Maybe a receiver falls. They need points.

Tre (Florida): With Mike Solari and Ray Brown as 0-line coaches now for the 49ers, can we expect to see marked improvement from any of the players along the offensive line and if so, who would you say has the most upside (currently on the roster)? Also don't you think these guys could coach up a second-round pick like Vladimir Ducasse or Jared Veldheer into a starting right tackle if necessary?

Mike Sando: Chilo Rachal would probably have the most untapped potential among offensive linemen already on the 49ers' roster. Joe Staley and Eric Heitmann are already veterans at this point. Coaching up a tackle does sound appealing. The question is really whether the 49ers can feel good about taking their chances at that position. The need might be great enough to consider taking one earlier.

One week to the draft. Let the smokescreens intensify.