NFC West: Kevin Minter

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Sunday might be the most important game of Kevin Minter's career.

With starting inside linebacker Larry Foote doubtful for the season finale at San Francisco, Minter will be among a trio that’ll replace Foote, but he’ll be the one the Arizona Cardinals depend on most.

With that responsibility comes an opportunity for Minter to prove he’s capable of being Arizona’s every-game starter next season.

“I feel like it can show a lot,” Minter said. “Obviously San Francisco is a hit-you-in-the-mouth type of team. We gonna see what I’m capable of. Like really, really what I’m made of.”

Minter has averaged 18 snaps per game this season as most teams forced Arizona into its dime or nickel packages. He already expected to play more snaps than he’s become accustomed to against the Niners, but Minter will have to share his reps Sunday, coach Bruce Arians said.

Rookie Glenn Carson and second-year linebacker Kenny Demens will also play, Arians said.

During his first two seasons, Minter saw veteran linebackers take his job and play some of the best football of their careers. First it was Karlos Dansby in 2013 and this season it was Foote, who has missed just one snap all season.

After being an apprentice for two seasons, Minter is ready to have the job to himself.

“I feel really comfortable,” Minter said. “A lot of people forget before I hurt myself I was the guy throughout training camp and stuff like that. I’m just back to doing what I used to be doing.”

Foote is finishing up a one-year contract and at 34 years old, his future in the NFL is unknown. Minter is 24 and was drafted in 2013.

On Sunday, he’ll get another chance -- his most important one -- to prove he’s the future for Arizona’s inside linebackers.

“We’ve prepared. We’ve had a good week of practice,” Minter said. “Hopefully, I can live up to the hype.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Kevin Minter used to head to the locker room soon after practice ended at LSU, but he'd see Odell Beckham Jr. head over to the JUGS machine or lobby Zach Mettenberger to throw more passes.

[+] EnlargeBeckham
Al Bello/Getty ImagesOdell Beckham Jr. made this catch on Sunday, but former LSU teammate Kevin Minter said, "It's stuff I've seen from him for a long time."
"He was always there forever after practice," Minter said. "I'd only catch a glimpse before I went inside. I'm not going to stand around and watch this fool do this stuff."

That "fool" became the talk of the NFL this week and "this stuff" helped Beckham haul in an acrobatic 43-yard touchdown pass from Giants quarterback Eli Manning that instantly became the best catch of the season. Beckham bent backward, far enough that the back of his head was parallel with the ground, fully extending his right arm to snag the pass.

"It was probably his best catch ever," Minter said. "But, still, I've seen a lot of that from him."

That's saying something considering Minter and Beckham Jr. were teammates at LSU from 2011-13.

"You kinda knew it from seeing him around in college," Minter said. "He was always making acrobatic catches, always doing that crazy stuff.

"It's stuff I've seen from him for a long time."

Minter said Beckham Jr.'s catches are a product of his intense focus and his hands.

When he tried to explain just how large Beckham Jr.'s hands are, Minter couldn't find the right words and tried to show a reporter compared to his own hands. The best description Minter came up with was "his hands are already pretty big."

"I wasn't surprised it was him," Minter said. "He just always had that great work ethic. And y'all are starting to see what we've all seen.

"I'm sure when they asked the other LSU guys that's been on the team with him, they probably said the same thing: It's Odell."
TEMPE, Ariz. – A day after getting an MRI on his left foot, Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington did not practice Friday, according to the team’s official injury report.

He was limited Thursday.

Also missing practice, for the second straight day, was linebacker Alex Okafor (thigh).

Guard Jonathan Cooper (toe), wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (knee), safety Tyrann Mathieu (knee), linebacker Kevin Minter (chest) and defensive tackle Frostee Rucker (back) were all listed as fully practicing.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Second-year running back Andre Ellington highlighted the Arizona Cardinals' first injury report of the season.

He was listed as limited because of his foot in Thursday's report.

Linebacker Alex Okafor did not practice because of a thigh injury. He was on the stationary bike Thursday during the open portion of practice. He missed the final 13 weeks of last season because of a torn biceps.

Also on the injury report were G Jonathan Cooper (toe), WR Larry Fitzgerald (knee), S Tyrann Mathieu (knee), LB Kevin Minter (chest) and DT Frostee Rucker (back). All were listed as full practice participants.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The paint has finally dried for Kevin Minter.

The Cardinals inside linebacker returned to practice Monday, two weeks after being sidelined by a strained pectoral muscle. He grew frustrated watching from the sideline during camp but he knew Arizona was just being cautious with his return.

However, that reassurance didn't make the days go by any faster.

"It was like watching paint dry," Minter said Monday. "It was so boring, just rehabbing and just watching. You obviously want to be out there, especially with the camp I was having. I was having a real good camp up until that point. I was excited though. I'm back. I'm ready to get this show on the road."

Minter's road to Week 1 will take a detour through San Diego on Thursday in both teams' final preseason game. While Arians said the starters won't play against the Chargers, Minter said it's possible he may see a few reps to get his football legs back. Eleven days later, the Cardinals and Chargers will meet again on "Monday Night Football" and Minter expects to be on the field.

Before Sunday's game at University of Phoenix Stadium, Minter, who played just one defensive snap last year, according to ESPN Stats & Information, went through a series of running drills with strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris. Pain hasn't been an issue, Minter said. He spent part of his rehab strengthening his pectoral muscle.

The Cardinals told Minter his starting spot would be safe when he got hurt, he said. Kenny Demens was tapped to replace him with the first team during the preseason and had his best game Sunday against Cincinnati. But Minter, who was drafted in the second round in 2013, is the future at the position.

"I did a lot to earn this spot," he said. "But, obviously, a lot of the linebackers that have been playing (have been playing) very well and I still got to work to get it."
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Four Arizona Cardinals are not expected to play Sunday night against Cincinnati, among them safety Tyrann Mathieu.

Mathieu returned to practice Wednesday after spending about 8.5 months recovering from ACL and LCL surgery. On Friday, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said he would evaluate Mathieu's chances of playing on Saturday.

The other Cardinals not expected to play were inside linebacker Kevin Minter (pectoral), guard Jonathan Cooper (toe) and nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu.

Ta'amu, who tore his ACL in Week 17 last year, also returned to practice Wednesday.

Minter was on the field about two hours before kickoff going through a series of running drills with Arizona strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris. Linebacker Kenny Demens will fill in for Minter. Cooper will miss his second straight preseason game and is expected to be replaced in the starting lineup by Ted Larsen.

One name not on the list was outside linebacker John Abraham, who reported to training camp on Aug. 14.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- As he does every day during training camp, Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians addresses the media after the morning walk-through. Here is a recap of what Arians discussed:
  • Arians was more than impressed with how defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga showed up, took a physical, signed a contract, got dressed and then practiced with the first team -- and then showed the starters how to do certain things. “It was a real good start for him. He brings a lot of energy and a professionalism. He was calling out who was going in motion. We haven’t had any of that. It was obviously contagious because other guys started doing it.”
  • Last season, the Cardinals struggled in Wednesday practices after having Tuesdays off. Arians saw that Wednesday and wasn't pleased with the tempo at which practice started. He’s trying to end that trend this year.
  • T Max Starks (ankle), G Jonathan Cooper (toe) and LB Kevin Minter (pec) will not practice Thursday.
  • Arians said the starters will still not play more than a half against the Bengals on Sunday and could play less depending on how their first few drives go.
  • While talking about Carson Palmer playing his old team on Sunday, Arians said it was "different" to play Pittsburgh in the 2012 preseason, less than a year after being forced out, while he was coaching the Colts.
  • Linebacker John Abraham looked good in practice Wednesday, Arians thought, and said the Cardinals will continue to increase his workload.
  • Rookie tight end Troy Niklas is playing without a soft cast on his right hand.
  • The Cardinals have two roster spots open after the team released defensive lineman Amp McCloud Thursday morning. Arians said those spots will likely stay open as first cuts approach in five days.
  • Arians said rookie WR Walt Powell will most likely have to make the final roster on special teams. “He’s starting to learn how to play gunner and vice and some of those things,” Arians said. “We’ll try to shoot him out there as a return man and see what he’s got. He’s got an uphill battle with all those guys ahead of him.”
  • Despite not a whole lot of production out of the running game through two preseason games, Arians isn’t concerned. “When you go for fourth down four times and you make it, that’s a pretty good running game.”
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The live goal-line situation at the end of the Arizona Cardinals' practice Saturday might have looked like just a few controlled plays to appease the crowd.

But it was a jumping off point for second-year linebacker Kevin Minter.

After last season, most only knew of Minter because of his draft status (second round) and his potential (the future at inside linebacker). With just one defensive snap in 2013, he wasn’t given a chance to prove either. That started to change Saturday. In just a handful of live plays, the first time during training camp that the Cardinals were tackling to the ground, Minter showed glimpses of the physicality that caused the 6-foot thumper to be the heir apparent to the Arizona’s vaunted middle linebackers last season.

"I just tried to show that I am that physical guy that you all made me out to be," Minter said.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians felt Minter accomplished that.

"(He was) everything I knew he would be," Arians said. "Solid tackling, right where he’s supposed to be. Everybody was really good. It was just some guys were outstanding. Kevin was fine."

But Saturday was just the very beginning of the process.

This coming Saturday, when Arizona begins its preseason schedule at home against Houston, Minter will get his first chance to play unhinged.

"I haven’t really done that in a while," Minter said. "I’m anxious to prove what I can do, to show that I’m ready to step up in this position."

Proving himself has become Minter’s motivation this season.

It drove him during the offseason, which he spent watching a lot of film, he said. He poured over his mistakes from practice last season, reviewing them, looking for an answer on how to fix them. He dove into the playbook to get a better understanding of what his role was this year.

He doesn’t need to prove to himself he can play. He already believes that. It's showing others that has kept him going.

Minter hears the doubters and it has put a chip on the shoulder of his 246-pound frame. But Minter never let the doubt seep in. Since Karlos Dansby chose the money in Cleveland over resigning with Arizona, the defense has been in Minter’s hands. He will be responsible for calling plays and aligning his teammates. He belives he can do it even if others don’t.

He has seen too many college stars flame out in the NFL and Minter doesn’t want to be the next.

"I understand the doubts and maybe being labeled ... might be labeled as a bust," Minter said. "I really just want to prove people wrong."
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.
Kevin MinterMatt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsThe Cardinals are counting on second-year LB Kevin Minter to make the calls on defense.
John Abraham is waiting for the day when Kevin Minter needs to tell him to shut up.

It's bound to happen at some point during the 2014 season if Minter evolves into the type of inside linebacker Arizona has faith he will become. It's bound to happen in the heat of battle, when the game is on the line and Minter will need to relay a critical play to the 10 other Cardinals in the huddle. It's bound to be a Pro Bowler at the other end of the direction.

“It's a little tough,” Abraham said.

If it happens, it will be a defining moment for Minter, who is slated to fill the void left by Karlos Dansby's departure to Cleveland. In his second year in the NFL, Minter will be charged with being the quarterback of the defense, the man who relays plays and instructions from defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to the rest of the defense.

It's a daunting task for a 23-year-old to look Patrick Peterson, Darnell Dockett or Calais Campbell in the eye and be the authority. But Minter is looking forward to it.

“It's like being in college all over again,” he said. “Doing all the adjustments, making all the calls and stuff like that, and being the guy that they depend on to run the show. It's cool. It's pretty humbling. It's nice.”

Minter's professional career has started eerily similar to his collegiate one.

He was lost his first year at LSU, trying to grasp the changes from high school football to college -- similar to his rookie NFL season. As a sophomore, Minter was given responsibility on defense and he blossomed.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said he talked to coaches at LSU and hopes Minter's second year in the NFL ends up like his sophomore year at LSU.

“You're the signal-caller. You're the leader of the defense,” Arians said. “Big shoes to fill. Karlos was very dynamic in what he did last year. Todd schemed very well for him, like he will for Kevin and whoever else who's in there.”

Dansby's leadership is what the Cardinals will miss most, Abraham said.

“Not even his physical attributes to the games, not even his numbers,” he said. “Just his leadership. How he talks. How he keeps a team together … starting in Arizona, leaving and coming back.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Dansby
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellKarlos Dansby was the leader of the Cardinals defense last season, but he signed with Cleveland as a free agent.
“We're definitely going to miss his numbers, but having his leadership and having him talk to the younger guys like that is going to probably be the biggest thing we're going to miss.”

Minter, who played just one defensive snap last season, was one of those younger guys whom Dansby mentored. He watched Dansby daily and learned how to work hard, make himself better and put the team first.

“That's a great quality for me to take from him,” Minter said. “If I'm able to do that same thing for this team, we can be just as good or even better than last year.

“I took [last] year as a learning year. The guy in front of me was amazing. He had the best year a damn linebacker can have. I had to pay attention. A guy like that, he came every day ready to work. I just hope I can bring that to the table as well.”

Minter will need to rely on those lessons early and often when Arizona reports to training camp. The team lost Daryl Washington, whom Minter would have leaned on for support in 2014, when he was suspended for a year for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, leaving Minter as the only stable piece of Arizona's inside linebacker corps.

But Abraham, who is entering his 15th season, was quick to say Minter won't be the next Dansby.

He's too young.

“He ain't gonna be Karlos at all,” Abraham said. “You can't even compare the two. He's going to be a good leader, but also he's young and all the other guys are kinda older than him. Not saying he's scared, but he's got to get used to being that guy 'cause you're the middle guy. You got to get used to telling people what to do, and I don't think he's ready for that just yet. I can see him getting into it. I can definitely see him being one of those kind of pros.

“Right now, he just got to work into it, just get comfortable, like telling guys, 'Get your ass over there. Go over there.' But right now, I don't think he's comfortable with that yet. Like Karlos came in and he was already 30-something. Everybody knew him here. He had the clout already.”

Minter doesn't have the clout of a 10-year vet, but he does have the support from the coaching staff -- for now at least. It's not easy for guys to develop into the voice of a defense, especially one that's as talented and stout as the Cardinals'. But Minter doesn't have time to let it happen naturally. He needs to step in this season and have his voice ready.

“Sometimes it's easy for some guys to; sometimes it's not,” Abraham said. “For me, when I first got here, I was real quiet, but now I'm comfortable. I can pretty much go anywhere and talk to anyone.

“I stepped back and observe before I start to talk to some people. When I say something, I want you to know, ‘Yeah, he backed it up.'”

Minter spent a year observing. Now it's his time to back it up.
Bruce AriansAP Photo/Ross D. FranklinArizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians will get a look at his full team Tuesday when OTAs begin.
This time last year, the buzz around the Cardinals was about a new coach with a new culture and a new scheme. This year, it’s about how do the Cardinals make the playoffs?

As the Cardinals’ offseason team activities (OTAs) begin Tuesday, there’s a lot to ponder from the past year and much to speculate on going forward. The next month will begin determining the fate for a lot of players on the current 90-man roster. As Cardinals coach Bruce Arians loved saying last year, this is when they have to put it on tape.

Here are 10 observations as the Cards begin OTAs:

  1. The top three running backs are established with Andre Ellington, Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer sitting atop the depth chart, but after that is a major drop-off. As of now, there isn’t is a viable option for the fourth back, which was occupied by Alfonso Smith a season ago. He’s gone and so is Ryan Williams, leaving the fourth spot up for grabs. That running back, however, may not be on the field Tuesday.
  2. There’ll be a lot of eyes on the newcomers this offseason, such as quarterback Logan Thomas, cornerback Antonio Cromartie, safety Deone Bucannon and left tackle Jared Veldheer. But the most intriguing position battle of the offseason starts Tuesday with two returning offensive linemen at right tackle. Arizona hasn’t re-signed Eric Winston for a reason: It wants to see what Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie can do. The two were college teammates at Ole Miss but neither are the clear-cut choices to assume the starting job. There have been questions about Massie’s ability to pick up the playbook for the last few seasons and Sowell was able to hold his own at left tackle last season but there’s a reason Arians didn’t keep him there. It’s yet to be seen if he’ll fare better on the right side.
  3. Losing Karlos Dansby was a major blow to the Cardinals’ inside linebackers but it could get worse. Having Daryl Washington practice with the first team may be for naught if he’s suspended for a significant amount of time by the league for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. The Cardinals are already in tryout mode with second-year linebacker Kevin Minter but if Washington is lost for more than a game, what was a strong point of the Cards’ defense will be its liability. Veteran Larry Foote may need the reps this offseason to get ready for a larger role next year but this is also a chance for an unknown inside backer to get noticed.
  4. It’s one thing for Cromartie to say his hip is better but it’s another for him to go out and show it. He’ll have the eyes of the media – although it’s not quite like New York – on him this offseason. If Cromartie’s hip isn’t an issue, he’ll be half of one of the league’s top cornerback tandems. If his right hip flexor is still hampering him during OTAs, he’ll be wise to just sit and let a young cornerback earn some time. But next up on the depth chart is the man Cromartie replaced, Jerraud Powers, who is likely itching to win back his spot.
  5. The top three wide receivers are a shoe-in. Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Ted Ginn will have jobs in 2014. It’s the other eight receivers on the roster who’ll be fighting for their jobs starting Tuesday. Arians clearly likes small, speedy receives -- he drafted two -- but now he has an abundance of them on the roster and will start weeding through them this week. One or two will make the cut but the rest will left fighting for the final few spots on the roster as a gunner or a special-teams machine.
  6. What a difference a year makes. Last May, the Cardinals were as confused as ever when it came to learning Arians’ offense. This year they know the wrinkles and intricacies of his complex offense. The days of Fitzgerald and Floyd lining up in the wrong places are over. The next step can be taken, which could mean a quicker start for the Cardinals than a year ago. And the result of that could then a game or two in January.
  7. Throughout the smokescreens before and during the draft, there was one truth that rose above it all: Arizona wasn’t drafting a quarterback unless he could win a spot on the roster. After the Cardinals picked Logan Thomas, Arians made it clear the first two quarterback spots are taken. That means Ryan Lindley’s third-string job is up for grabs. He’s been lending a helping hand to Thomas but when practice gets going Tuesday, he’ll need to turn it up to show Arians that he made a mistake. That may be harder than anticipated because Logan was drafted to not get cut.
  8. One of the few players with the most to lose and the most to gain during OTAs is tight end Rob Housler. He fell short of expectations last season and never grew into the player Arians had envisioned him being. It doesn’t help Housler, cut from the receiving tight end mold, that he isn’t fond of blocking. The Cardinals went out during the offseason and added two tight ends who are tailor made to fit Arians’ two-tight end scheme. Add in Jake Ballard, who joined the team around midseason last year, and Arizona has a three-tight end rotation that could see Housler as the odd man out.
  9. Tuesday will be the first day that left guard Jonathan Cooper can take the field for since he broke his leg against San Diego in the Cardinals’ third preseason game. How much Cooper can do starting this week will be an indication of how far along in his rehab he is. If he’s practicing in full, training camp will be a sure thing. If not, then training camp may be the first time Cooper will work out at full capacity.
  10. Another offensive lineman the Cardinals are anxious to see on the field is guard Earl Watford. The second-year player feels he has a better grasp of the playbook and the offense in his second offseason. He’ll be given a chance to win the starting job over last year’s starting guard Paul Fanaika. If he does, the job may be Watford’s for the foreseeable future.

Cards not quite Super Bowl ready

March, 26, 2014
Carson PalmerSam Greenwood/Getty ImagesCarson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals just missed out on the playoffs this past season.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Coach Bruce Arians said Wednesday the NFL owners meetings that the Arizona Cardinals could be the first team to play a home Super Bowl.

“There's no reason we can't be the first team to play a home Super Bowl,” he said, according to multiple reports. “Absolutely no reason.”

Doing it would be as hard as a college basketball team playing in the Final Four in its home city. A lot has to happen; a lot of pieces have to fall into place.

After a 10-6 season in 2013, the Cardinals are closer than most teams in the NFL. Even more so after solidifying left tackle, cornerback, third receiver and kick returner during free agency. Those additions give Arians a case for the Cardinals making a run to Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

Then again, at this point in the year, every coach believes his team can do the same thing -- although some coaches know it’s more likely while others are crossing their fingers and toes.

But as Arians sat in Orlando, Fla., talking to the media during this week’s meetings, the Cardinals aren’t Super Bowl ready just yet. They’re close, but they’re not there.

The offense is the primary reason. Sure, the adage is defense wins championships -- it also wins games, as was the case at Seattle in December when quarterback Carson Palmer threw four interceptions and the defense still led Arizona to a win -- but the offense needs to produce consistently for the Cardinals to even think about making a deep run in January. The Cards have to convert more third downs and keep drives going longer than in 2013.

Throughout last season, they showed glimpses of a high-octane offense hidden under the plethora of interceptions and failed drives, scoring 10 offensive touchdowns on five plays or fewer. The Cardinals failed to convert on 136 of 210 third downs in 2013. If they can convert even 25 percent more of those drives into a field goal or a touchdown, a Super Bowl may start coming into focus.

[+] EnlargeKevin Minter
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesKevin Minter has some big shoes to fill on the Arizona defense.
On paper, the offense looks like a playoff-caliber unit. The question then becomes: Can the Cardinals start training camp at the same place offensively as they ended 2013? And can they continue to improve without taking one step back to take two steps forward?

The defense, as it is today, is a playoff-caliber unit, but it’s a few pieces away from being a championship-level defense. The Kevin Minter experiment, finding a safety who will neutralize tight ends and Tyrann Mathieu returning from his knee injury are three factors standing between the Cardinals and a Feb. 1, 2015, home game.

Minter will be given the starting job at inside linebacker, which was vacated when Karlos Dansby left for Cleveland, until he loses it, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said last week. How Minter can adapt to the NFL speed as an undersized thumper who played just one down on defense last season will dictate how effective Arizona’s secondary will be.

The defensive line will again be strong, especially with the return of Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander from injuries. With John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy coming off the edges, the linebackers will need to be responsible for the second layer so the secondary can focus on slowing down receivers. Last season, Dansby’s speed allowed him to get from sideline to sideline effectively. But does Minter have that same quickness? Only time will tell.

By adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie, the Cardinals’ secondary was drastically improved, but there’s still a major gap at strong safety. Last year, that position was filled by Yeremiah Bell, who at 6-foot-0, struggled against tall tight ends. A bigger safety will have to be one of Arizona’s top priorities in May’s draft because Tony Jefferson, Bell's apparent successor on the current roster, is only 5-11. With 17 of the 29 touchdowns thrown by opponents going to tight ends last season, slowing them will be the difference between 10 wins and 12 or 13.

The last major piece on defense that could make the Cardinals into a championship-caliber team is Mathieu. He missed the final three games with ACL and LCL injuries, and a return date hasn’t been set because recovery from an LCL injury typically has an indefinite timetable. If Mathieu can return to form quickly, he’ll add another playmaking dynamic to the Cardinals’ secondary that has the potential to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.

With his versatility, Mathieu can play three positions -- inside and outside corner and safety -- while filling in at nickel without the Cardinals needing to substitute. That seamless flexibility will keep the defense as one coherent unit and allow defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to alter the scheme on the fly.

It’s clear a lot needs to happen for Arizona to enjoy the comforts of home during Super Bowl week, but for all the right reasons. It’s possible, but there’s plenty of work to be done.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- While he spent 10 minutes Thursday talking about his latest free-agent addition to the Arizona Cardinals’ defense, Antonio Cromartie, general manager Steve Keim shed some light on where he may focus his draft picks in early May.

Keim identified depth and length across the defense as the team's primary needs, specifically at defensive end, outside linebacker, safety and inside linebacker.

“I think we’ve made some improvements,” Keim said. “I don’t want to step out on a limb and say we’re there yet. As a perfectionist, I think we all look at things and would like to be a little deeper in certain positions.”

Stocking up at those positions is planning for the future. The Cardinals will be on the lookout for Darnell Dockett’s replacement this draft, as well as a formidable backup to Calais Campbell. Trying to add depth to outside linebacker will be done because John Abraham and Lorenzo Alexander are getting close to the end of their careers and Arizona could be thin there after this season.

Safety has been a top priority since the season ended, especially since 17 of the 29 touchdowns thrown by other teams went to tight ends. Arizona would prefer a taller, more athletic safety it can match up with the likes of San Francisco’s Vernon Davis and St. Louis’ Jared Cook.

And with Karlos Dansby vacating one of the two starting inside linebacker jobs and Kevin Minter assuming that role in an “audition,” Keim said, the Cardinals are in need of relief behind Minter and Daryl Washington.

The Cardinals have the 20th pick in the first three rounds of May’s NFL draft (20th, 52nd and 84th) and the rest will be officially determined during next week’s league meetings. Arizona doesn't have a seventh-round choice, which was traded to Oakland as part of the Carson Palmer deal.

In his second season, Keim doesn’t want free agency to be as frenzied for the Cardinals as it has been the past two seasons. He’d prefer improving through the draft, but admitted that free agency is a great way to fill immediate needs.

“My whole goal and our whole goal as [an] organization is to be able to go in … [and] that we can sit there and look in the mirror and say we’re taking the best player available and the guy who helps the Cardinals the most,” Keim said. “I think through free agency we’ve afforded ourselves to do that.”
TEMPE, Ariz. – While Wednesday’s news conference was about the Cardinals’ new left tackle, head coach Bruce Arians hinted toward who’ll replace the recently departed Karlos Dansby at inside linebacker.

And, apparently, the Cardinals won’t have to look past last year’s second-round draft pick, Kevin Minter.

“We drafted him for a reason,” Arians said. “We love him. He should assume that role.”

Minter played just one snap on defense while sitting behind Daryl Washington and Dansby last season, waiting in the wings even during Washington’s four-game suspension. Minter's chance may come this year at left inside linebacker, the position vacated by Dansby. But it’s not guaranteed.

Arians said the Cardinals will still look for linebackers in free agency and may give Lorenzo Alexander a shot at earning the job. Alexander, who was signed as an outside linebacker, has also played inside, Arians said. In Week 3 last year, Alexander suffered a Lisfranc injury and missed the rest of the season. He's expected to be healthy for training camp.

“That’s what we love about him is his flexibility,” Arians said.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- When the Arizona Cardinals start free agency on March 11, they’ll be like a race car driver who’s being strategic with their gas.

Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said Thursday on SiriusXM NFL Radio from the NFL combine in Indianapolis that Arizona will approach free agency aggressively but they’ll still be smart with their money.

“Aggressive doesn’t mean overspend or being unwise with our money,” Keim said. “We have to budget. That’s why we run all the statistical analysis on the market, age of players, position, that sort of thing, and we have a great database to go off of.”

[+] EnlargeKarlos Dansby
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellArizona will have to determine if Karlos Dansby's price tag is an affordable one in the coming weeks.
According to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, the salary cap for 2014 is expected to be raised to $130 million, which gave the Cardinals about $11 million of cap space to work with, according to Keim. The majority of that sum came from Larry Fitzgerald restructuring his contract.

The extra money – about $9 million from Fitzgerald – will allow Arizona to be more aggressive once free agency kicks off.

“We’ll approach some of the top guys in free agency in positions in need but you have to be ready to move on to the next guy,” Keim said.

That patience has paid off for Keim, who signed a bevy of B-list free agents in 2013 that led the Cardinals to a 10-6 season. This year, however, one of the Cards' primary needs is on the offensive line. They want to strengthen left tackle, occupied last season by Bradley Sowell, and may need to restock right tackle if they can’t re-sign Eric Winston. Tops on the free-agency market is Kansas City left tackle Branden Albert, who made $9.8 million last season. But don't expect to see the Cardinals rushing to sign a tackle, or anyone for that matter, once the clock strikes 2 p.m. on March 11 in Arizona.

“It all depends on the market,” Keim said. “We’ll see where the market goes. After probably the first two to three hours of free agency, people will start to panic and things will settle in.”

But first, Arizona wants to take care of some in-house free agents.

Keim said Arizona recently concluded a series of meetings about its 15 unrestricted free agents, of which the Cardinals would like to “address several of our own players” – including linebacker Karlos Dansby. Dansby played under a $2.25 million contract in 2014 and could ask for as much as $10 million to potential suitors. But that’s the type of money Arizona may not want to pay for a 32-year-old inside linebacker, regardless of his career season in 2013.

“He's a big priority,” Keim said during his combine news conference. “Karlos is a guy we'd like to have back. He's a great leader. He's a good football player. Hopefully, we can get something done but you have to be prepared to move on, from any player. That's why we drafted Kevin Minter in the second round last year. We saw some good things out of Kevin in training camp, in preseason football.

“And that's how you have to build your team. You know, at times you are going to lose players. You have to have the right kind of depth. That's why on draft day you can never draft for need because needs are always changing.”