- Josh Weinfuss, ESPN Staff Writer
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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.