NFL Nation: Carson Palmer

So, you already knew that the recently acquired Matt Schaub was earmarked to be the Oakland Raiders' starting quarterback this season. And while neither Terrelle Pryor nor his fans should be happy about that development, what coach Dennis Allen told reporters Tuesday will perk up more than a few ears.

Schaub
Schaub
"We have a quarterback now," Allen said at the NFL owners meetings, per the Bay Area News Group, "that's on par with the quarterbacks in the division."

Got it?

Shaub = Kansas City's Alex Smith. Sure.

Shaub = San Diego's Philip Rivers. Meh.

Shaub = Denver's Peyton Manning. Um ...

If nothing else, Allen is a glass-half-full kind of guy. He has to be. After consecutive 4-12 seasons in which his teams folded spectacularly down the stretch both times, Allen knows this is a make-or-break type of year in which the Raiders need to show improvement.

And for the purposes of this discussion, it all begins under center ... with a new quarterback who is a two-time Pro Bowler coming off a nightmarish season. So what kind of quarterback does Allen prefer, exactly?

"Guys that can move the team down the field, guys who can put points on the board," Allen said. "I think there's certain qualities you look at in the quarterbacks that have been able to be successful over the years. I'm talking about guys like Drew Brees, who I was with [in New Orleans]. I'm talking about guys like Peyton Manning. I'm talking about guys like Tom Brady. Guys [whose] work ethic is unmatched; they're the first ones in the building, they're the last one to leave.

"They have the ability to process information quickly and they can throw the ball with timing and accuracy. And those are the things you have to be able to do to play the quarterback position."

And water is wet.

Of course, that's the goal of every team -- to find a franchise quarterback. It's been a tortuous journey for the Raiders the past three years as they've used first- and second-round picks (Carson Palmer), a third-round supplemental pick (Pryor), a fourth-round pick (Tyler Wilson) a fifth-round pick (Matt Flynn) and now a sixth-rounder (Schaub) in their search for a savior.

The new regime of Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie is responsible for the last three on the list.

"It's pretty obvious that we feel good about Matt Schaub as our starting quarterback," Allen said. "We feel comfortable with Matt McGloin as a back up. But we'll see what happens in the next few days, next couple weeks.

"Everybody has down seasons. Everybody has down years. It's not a shame to get knocked down; it's a shame to not get back up. [Schaub] is a guy that's been a two-time Pro Bowl player, he's been a top 10 quarterback in the National Football League over the last five years and we believe, and he believes, that he's still that. And I don't think that changes overnight, I really don't."

Schaub had a career-worst total quarterback rating of 43.65 last season, losing his starting job midway through the season and throwing 14 interceptions, including a stretch of four straight games with a pick-6, with 10 touchdowns and a 61.1 completion percentage rate.

"Do I think he's going to have a little bit of a chip on his shoulder? Yeah, I really do," Allen said. "I think there's going to be a little bit of added incentive for him to kind of prove what he can do? Yeah, I think there will be, and I think that's a good thing."
Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie's mantra is to build a team through the draft, and to fill in the gaps through free agency. McKenzie loves his draft picks, but with Monday's news that the Raiders were shut out of the compensatory pick pool, he has but five picks at his disposal.

Currently the Raiders hold picks in the first round (No. 5 overall), second round (No. 36), third round (No. 67), fourth round (No. 107) and two in the seventh round (Nos. 219 and 235).

The Raiders' fifth-round pick went to the Seattle Seahawks last April 1 for quarterback Matt Flynn and Oakland's sixth-rounder just went to the Houston Texans for quarterback Matt Schaub. Oakland's second seventh-rounder (No. 235) came from the Arizona Cardinals in the deal that sent quarterback Carson Palmer to the desert on April 2, 2013.

So with only five selections at his disposal, it's easy to imagine McKenzie going into Trader Reggie mode again to garner more picks, even if it means moving down from the fifth overall pick.

Last year, McKenzie entered the draft with five picks. By the time it was over, he had 10 selections.

First, he dealt the No. 3 overall pick to the Miami Dolphins for their first-rounder at No. 12, which he used to selected cornerback D.J. Hayden, as well as the Dolphins' second-round selection at No. 42 to take offensive lineman Menelik Watson.

Then, after the Philadelphia Eagles traded in front of the Raiders to draft USC quarterback Matt Barkley, McKenzie gave the Tampa Bay Buccaneers their fourth-round pick at No. 100 in exchange for the Buccaneers' fourth-rounder at No. 112, which they used on Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, and their sixth-rounder at No. 181, which became running back Latavius Murray.

McKenzie completed his third trade of the draft in the sixth round, flipping the 176th overall selection acquired in the Palmer trade to Houston for the Texans' sixth-rounder at No. 184, which became tight end Mychal Rivera and seventh-rounder at No. 233, defensive end David Bass.

Even if McKenzie is not as aggressive this time around, he should be active. The key, then, is hitting on his picks, which is especially important in first year of the Raiders' reconstruction.
Andy DaltonRob Carr/Getty ImagesThe Bengals face a difficult decision in determining how much Andy Dalton is worth.
CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals find themselves at a crossroads.

When they drafted Andy Dalton with the 35th overall pick in the 2011 draft, their goal was to make him a star. Carson Palmer's career had begun stagnating, the locker room was fracturing and a new direction was needed for the franchise. The powers that be believed Dalton gave them the best chance of making that happen.

Three years and three playoff berths later, Dalton has lived up to many of those expectations.

But losses in all three of his playoff games and a penchant for throwing interceptions have cast doubt over whether he ought to be given the long-term reins to the team's offense. Doubt or not, the Bengals remain convinced that Dalton is the man for the job, and want to make sure they hold onto him for years to come.

It is the very nature of Dalton's play -- sometimes really good, sometimes really bad -- that has made agreeing on a contract extension difficult this offseason. Bengals president and owner Mike Brown reemphasized Sunday at the league owners' meeting in Orlando, Fla., that the top personnel priority moving forward is to get Dalton locked up. When that will happen is anyone's guess, he said.

While performance will play a big role in determining the length and amount of Dalton's contract, there are also other factors to take into account -- namely trying to balance what the starting quarterback market has done in recent years with what it could soon be doing.

That conundrum is at the crux of what the Bengals are facing.

"When you go forward in this league it is not clear which is the better way to go. Do you have a high-priced quarterback and less elsewhere? Or do you try to have as many guys as you can have and maybe a quarterback that is young and not so highly paid?" Brown said at the meetings Sunday, according to Bengals.com.

The 49ers and Panthers are probably pondering the same question in varying degrees. Soon, the Seahawks, Colts and Dolphins might be facing the same question, too. Each of these teams has starting quarterbacks who were drafted after the latest collective bargaining agreement changed rookie contracts in 2011. As a result, they either already started or will soon start trying to balance the old model for paying and playing quarterbacks, with a new system that Dalton and the Bengals could be the first to christen.

All players who were selected in the second through seventh rounds of the 2011 draft were inked to four-year deals, per the new CBA. Those selected in the first round are eligible to have fifth-year options exercised and won't necessarily be playing out the final year of their rookie contract in 2014.

Where this gets tricky for quarterbacks -- namely those taken in the second round like Dalton and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick -- is that the money this post-CBA class will receive on its second contract likely will look much different from what quarterbacks were getting. They likely will get paid significantly less. With fewer restrictions on rookie contracts before 2011, first- and second-round quarterbacks were walking away with rookie deals that paid them upward of $9, $10 and $11 million a year.

Dalton's rookie deal was for four years at $5.2 million total. Carolina's Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, received a four-year deal for $22 million total. That's a big change from what quarterbacks were commanding before.

Remember, in Dalton's case, that salary was for a second-round, post-CBA pick who was also joining a team that already had a starter in Palmer. Even though Palmer was eventually placed on the reserve list before ultimately getting traded to Oakland in the middle of the 2011 season, he had been Cincinnati's big earner. At that time, he was entering the sixth year of a 10-year, $119.5 million contract that had been signed in December 2005, on the heels of the Bengals' first playoff berth since 1990.

Dalton will not be seeing a $119.5 million contract.

But a closer look at his statistics after three seasons, shows perhaps he has deserved a modest second-contract bump that could compete with what his recent quarterback counterparts have received.

In an effort to figure out which recent quarterback Dalton's second contract might mimic, we looked at statistics of players who had credentials like his: Drafted in the first or second round, started Week 1 of their rookie seasons and continued to play a true starter's role throughout their first three years. We went back as far as the 1998 draft class led by Peyton Manning:

Of the quarterbacks across those 14 seasons who matched that criteria, only Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco had more wins per season than Dalton. Only Manning averaged more passing yards and more touchdown passes in the first three seasons of his career than Dalton did. Along with Dalton, Flacco is the only other quarterback who went to the postseason in each of his first three seasons.

Dalton struggled with interceptions, though. His 16.3 per season average was higher than Flacco's, Palmer's, Newton's, Sam Bradford's, Matt Ryan's, Matthew Stafford's, Joey Harrington's, Derek Carr's, Tim Couch's and Charlie Batch's.

He may have played better into his second contract than many of these other signal-callers, but it's clear Dalton won't see the financial windfalls they did. So how big will his raise be?

The Bengals, stuck at a crossroads, are busy trying to figure that out.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Developing chemistry can be the difference between winning a championship and watching the playoffs from the couch.

It's the hardest thing to develop in team sports, regardless of the level. It can take a matter of days or months or a season to develop. Even longer. There's no formula. It just happens. But when it does, it's sports magic -- just watch the NCAA tournament.

Ayodele
Veldheer
Palmer
The Arizona Cardinals tried to speed that process up March 11 when they signed left tackle Jared Veldheer. Veldheer spent two seasons protecting the blind side of Carson Palmer when the two played for the Oakland Raiders. Reunited in Arizona, Palmer and Veldheer already have a bond that's tough to break, one that Palmer called "extremely comfortable."

"With experience playing together, you know what you're getting," Palmer said. "You know you don't have to worry about that and when you do, you just step up because it's a wide rush and he knows where the quarterback's going to be in the pocket. He plays to the whistle. There's nothing you can say negative about him."

Their friendship is still strong, according to Palmer.

After Veldheer told Palmer he was going to be a free agent, all Palmer asked was that Veldheer consider Arizona. Apparently, that's all he needed to say.

In the days leading up to free agency, Palmer helped reassure Cardinals general manager Steve Keim that Veldheer was a good fit in Arizona by answering Keim's questions he already seemed to know the answer to. Even though they were separated for a year, the memory of playing with Palmer is still strong in Veldheer's mind.

"He's a great quarterback, great leader in the huddle, very smart," Veldheer said. "The tempo which he can play at is great to be part of. It's tough for other teams to kind of react and play with it."

But reuniting isn't going to be all birthday cake and daisies.

"Maybe some familiarity with me in the huddle, as far as calling plays and demeaor as the game goes on," Palmer said. "Maybe that'll be a little bit comforting but he's got to learn a new offense, a new system.

"There's a lot of new things to learn. It's not going to be real comfortable. I know BA's [Cardinals coach Bruce Arians] not a real comfortable [guy to] give you a hug, slap you on the butt, tell you 'good job.' He's going to demand a lot from Jared. We're going to put a lot of expectations on him and Jared was more than capable of those expectations."

There'll be small things that will click for Veldheer and Palmer right away -- movements, thoughts, looks.

When chemistry is there for the taking, it needs to be capitalized on. That's one reason the Cardinals signed Veldheer.

"I think it gives Carson a lot of satisfaction and relief that he knows this guy can play for him and has played for him," Arians said. "Like Steve said earlier, when Carson came to me, he said, ‘We've got to get this guy.' I trust him totally. He's a hard-working, tough hombre that likes to practice hard and play hard. He fit what we were looking for so it was easy.

"It was a no-brainer."
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. -- 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.
The Oakland Raiders letting their two best free agents walk says many things. The biggest message to glean? General manager Reggie McKenzie did not believe left tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive end Lamarr Houston were as indispensable as you did and, obviously, not worth the money they were commanding.

And yet, McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen’s claims that each was a building block for the future of the franchise ring hollow now, no?

Veldheer, who played the final five games last season after undergoing left triceps surgery in training camp, agreed to a reported five-year, $35 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals and will reunite with quarterback Carson Palmer.

Houston moved to the right side last year and responded with a career-high six sacks, though only two after Week 7, and is seen as more of a run-stuffer than a pass-rusher. He agreed to a reported five-year, $35-million deal with the Chicago Bears.

The Raiders, with almost $65 million in cap space, have holes to fill and are set to replace Veldheer with Rodger Saffold, who agreed to a five-year, $42.5-million deal with $21 million guaranteed.

Free-agency primer: Cardinals

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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: LB Karlos Dansby, RT Eric Winston, S Yeremiah Bell, K Jay Feely, LB Matt Shaughnessy

Where they stand: Arizona has talked to all of them, but it's unlikely the Cardinals re-sign any of the team's key free agents until after March 11. Dansby could be the trigger, however. If he re-signs for an affordable price or doesn't re-sign, Arizona may be able to re-sign some of their veteran free agents instead of opting for cheaper options. According to reports, Arizona has been negotiating with linebacker Shaughnessy. Bell has expressed his desire to return to Arizona mainly because of what the Cardinals' defense started last year. Winston may be the Cardinals' best option at right tackle for another season and his camp has begun talks with the Cardinals. Feely has said he talked to the Cardinals this week.

What to expect: Don't expect Dansby to re-sign before free agency begins. If it hasn't happened yet, it probably won't until he tests the market to see what his worth is. Then the Cardinals could come into play again. Winston could be whom Arizona needs to anchor the line for another year. He, along with the rest of the offensive line, matured together and were protecting quarterback Carson Palmer better in the second half of the season than the first, momentum that can only continue to grow. Bell isn't likely to return because his size and speed make him a liability against bigger, faster receivers and tight ends. Even though he was in Bruce Arians' dog house at the end of the season, Feely can return because of the limited number of good kickers available. Shaughnessy is also likely to re-sign because of his value at a low cost.

The case for Zach Mettenberger

February, 27, 2014
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Zach MettenbergerDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsZach Mettenberger threw for 3,082 yards and 22 touchdowns for LSU last season.
If you listened to Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians last week at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, all is right in the world of the team's quarterbacks.

The Cardinals have their starter in Carson Palmer. And if Palmer goes down, Arians believes Drew Stanton can step in to lead Arizona to a division title.

"If something, God forbid, happened to Carson, I've got all the confidence in Drew taking over and us winning the division or the championship," Arians said. "He's been [in the system] two years now, he's smart, tough. That's all you want. He's a guy who can step in the game and doesn't need any reps. He reminds me a lot of Kelly Holcomb."

None of those comments came as a surprise. Arians loved Stanton when he was signed last offseason as the starter ... until Palmer was acquired in a trade and named the starter. It has worked out well so far. Palmer threw for a career best in yards while leading the Cardinals to 10 wins and the brink of the playoffs -- all of which helped Arizona overlook Palmer's career-worst 22 interceptions.

Arians believes Palmer can play until he’s "36, 37 -- easily." But that means Palmer will have to be re-signed before next February because the last year of his current three-year deal voids five days after the next Super Bowl. Palmer will be 35, probably still slinging it like the cowboy he is while playing in the wild, wild West of all places.

But Palmer isn't the Cardinals' long-term answer. Neither is Stanton. Neither is third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley.

Sure, Palmer could play for another two seasons. But at what point do the Cardinals look toward the future? It needs to happen this year and former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger is the place to start.

The Cardinals don't need to draft a quarterback in the first or even the second round. It's not that high of a priority, but Arizona needs to select a quarterback who it can mold into what Arians wants. Someone who they can give time to learn the offense.

"You go into every draft looking for the young franchise quarterback," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told SiriusXM NFL Radio from the combine. "Although, Carson gives you the luxury of not having to force [a pick]. Sometimes, when you don't have one, you get into a situation where you have to force a pick and that sets you back two to three years.

"Carson gives us some stability, but at the same time we'll always be aggressive in our approach and in our mindset that you're always looking for the next young quarterback."

There are few NFL-ready quarterbacks in this year's draft and even fewer who'll be sitting around on the second or third day. But Mettenberger has the physical traits Arians likes. He's 6-foot-5, 224 pounds with a big arm and already knows how to play in an NFL scheme. His offensive coordinator at LSU was former NFL coach Cam Cameron.

Mettenberger threw for 3,082 yards, 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2013 before tearing his ACL in the Tigers' regular-season finale. He wasn't able to do any of the drills at the combine, which could make his stock drop -- right into the Cardinals' lap.

"Without the injury, I still don't think he's going to be a first- or second-round pick," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "I think what he is  and what worries me a little bit on tape is I think he stares down some of his intended receivers, I think the ball comes out late sometimes. He's not a guy that I think can start Day 1 in the NFL anyway.

"So, if you ask me how much it would impact him, the injury, I don't think quite as much as you might think on the surface, because I do believe he's got a lot of learning to do. I like his size, I like his ability and I like his arm strength. It's more just a matter of his footwork, being more consistent with the ball, his feet being lined up, getting the ball out and some of the reads he makes. I think he just doesn't get the ball out quickly enough and I think that's something that a young quarterback has got to develop."

Mettenberger sounds like the perfect project for quarterback guru Tom Moore. Mettenberger likely won't be ready for training camp and may not even be 100 percent for Week 1. But then again, the Cards don't need him to be.

They can place him on the injured reserve/non-football injury list, which would allow Mettenberger to be activated at some point during the second half of the season. By November, Mettenberger's knee would likely be healed -- ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter said last week that Mettenberger's recovery is progressing faster than expected -- and he can start taking reps in practice.

Even though Keim said at the combine that he's always looking for a quarterback, he also has said, according to the team website, that the only way a quarterback can mature is by playing.

"The only way to grow as a player is to get those full-speed reps," Keim said. "You don’t get those in practice. You have to learn on the job. Obviously [Green Bay quarterback] Aaron Rodgers was a different circumstance, and it's not a bad circumstance to be in, but at the same time, if you want to win now and you want significant improvement early in their career, I think it's in their best interest to play early."

Arians shared a similar philosophy.

"I don’t believe in drafting quarterbacks thinking they can learn a damn thing holding a clipboard," Arians said, according to the team site.

But holding a clipboard is exactly what Stanton has done for the past three seasons, two of which have been spent learning Arians' scheme. He hasn't thrown a regular-season pass since 2010. Yet, Arians still believes he's capable of coming in, if needed, and leading the Cardinals to a division title?

While Rodgers is the ultimate example of what a quarterback can do after learning for few seasons behind the starter, Palmer isn't far behind. He was drafted No. 1 overall in 2003 and didn’t play a down his rookie season, learning behind starter Jon Kitna. And Palmer has turned out all right. What better player to mentor Mettenberger than a guy who went through the same thing?

Which is why the Cardinals would be better off long term if they drafted a quarterback like Mettenberger and let him learn from Moore, Arians and offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin and then let him take over in 2015.

The future will be here before Arizona knows it and it looks like Zach Mettenberger.

GM Steve Keim: Cardinals are close

February, 21, 2014
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- It’s one thing for the Arizona Cardinals to want to get to the top. It’s another for them to be on their way.

In the eyes of Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, his team spent 2013 closing the gap between themselves and the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. A 10-6 season that finished with a 7-2 run and a bull rush toward the postseason still left Arizona sitting third in the division, but the Cardinals are as close as they have been since the recent resurgence of the Niners and the Seahawks.

Just how close are the Cardinals?

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsCarson Palmer and the Arizona offense found their groove in the second half of the season.
They have to consider the fact that their division is home to the now-defending world champion Seahawks, and both NFC Championship Game finalists.

“Moving forward, I felt like, on each side of the ball, we were at least two to three players away from being an upper-echelon team,” Keim said during his NFL combine news conference Thursday in Indianapolis.

“I think it's a great litmus test to play those teams (Seattle, San Francisco and St. Louis) in those divisions, because it helps expose where your limitations are, where you feel like you need to improve,” he added.

More often than not against the West, the Cards were exposed. Through the first two days of the combine, Keim and head coach Bruce Arians have talked about their needs for next season. Keim said two or three players on each side of the ball. On offense that could mean a left tackle and a tight end. On defense, that is a safety geared to stopping tight ends, another cornerback, and a back up defensive tackle.

It took Arians just one season to make the offseasons in the West a chess match. Whatever one team does, the others will counter -- even St. Louis.

Based on how 2013 went, however, Arizona knows it needs to stock up in a few areas to compete for a division crown, namely on the offensive line. Keeping quarterback Carson Palmer protected, especially against the defenses the Cardinals face six times a year, can be the difference between 10 wins and 12, or even 13.

“You have to be on your A-game at all times,” Keim said. “All three teams that we're facing are very, very good defensively. You have to keep pace. It leaves very little room for error, not only in the draft but in free agency as well. You have to be physical on the offensive and defensive lines.

“You've got to have really good depth.”

After facing each team once last year, Arians began to adjust. He kept nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu around for depth behind Dan Williams, which kept the defensive line fresh down the stretch. And Arians began to trim the playbook, which helped the offense finally click.

If Keim needed a measuring stick last season to see how far the Cardinals had come -- or how far they have to go -- it came in Seattle in Week 16.

The Seahawks hadn’t lost at CenturyLink Field all season until Arizona’s defense stonewalled running back Marshawn Lynch and cramped quarterback Russell Wilson to his breaking point on Dec. 22 in a 17-10 win. It was the last time Seattle lost last season.

“Obviously, going to Seattle and beating them up there showed signs that we were headed in the right direction,” Keim said.

Said Arians: “The division we’re in is a great division. You’re battle-tested when you come out of it. The second half of the season, we competed very well in the division.

“If we were in the playoffs, we would have done some damage. We just didn't win enough games.”
Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians addressed the media Friday morning at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, and the assembled reporters didn’t waste any time asking him about his veteran quarterback.

Palmer
He was asked if Carson Palmer, 34, was a “stop-gap?”

“There’s no doubt he’s got plenty of juice left in the tank,” Arians said. “He’s in great condition and he’s always in great condition. So I would think he can play up to 36, 37 easily."
  • Arians said an 11-5 record might not have helped get Arizona into the playoffs but if they snuck in, the rest of the NFC would’ve had to watch out.“If we were in the playoffs we would’ve did some damage,” Arians said. “We just didn’t win enough games.”
  • Arians felt the Cardinals were “real close” during the final eight games because everything was clicking.“We were running the football much better, and it helped our offensive line so much,” Arians said. “Our receivers and quarterback got on the same page. Third-down efficiency improved, red zone started to improve. So we were playing the way we wanted to play. The second half of the season, I was extremely pleased the way we were playing offensively.”
  • Arians made it clear what kind of tight end he’ll be looking for the free agency or the draft: One who can block first then catch.“I’m old school,” Arians said. “He’s got to block first and catch passes. That’s why I loved Heath Miller. I still think he’s the best tight end in the National Football League. Not because he catches 90 passes, but because he blocks big defensive ends and he catches about 60, 70 passes. The guys that line up as wide receivers might get tagged as wide receivers. But tight ends, for me, block for me first and catch second. That’s what receivers get paid for.”
  • Among Arizona receiver Michael Floyd's biggest strides in his second year, Arians said, was his ability to play through injury.“I think Michael’s starting to reach his potential,” Arians said. “He had what I considered a break-out year, over a 1,000 yards. He still needs to be a little more consistent each week. He played through injuries for the first time, which is a huge step for a young player. A lot of times they’ll just sit themselves down. He wanted to win. He wanted to help us win, and I thought he made great strides. But this year can he do it again? That’ll be the question for him.”
The NFL combine doesn’t just test a prospect’s agility, explosiveness and football skills – among other physical capabilities. It also challenges the mind. Aside from interviews, the players take the Wonderlic test, a 50-word quiz with a 12-minute time limit.

A score of 20 represents “average” intelligence.

The Wonderlic measures cognitive ability, but it doesn’t quite have a direct correlation to on-field production. Take Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson. He reportedly scored a nine on the test when he took it in 2011, according to ESPN Stats & Information. All Peterson’s done is make three Pro Bowls in each of his three seasons as a professional and be named All-Pro in two of them.

Since the Wonderlic results aren’t published publicly, all scores that are circulated have been reported by various media outlets.

The score of another Cardinal has also been reported. Quarterback Carson Palmer reportedly scored a 26 on the Wonderlic, the same number reportedly as Tampa Bay’s Mike Glennon, Chicago’s Jay Cutler, Dallas’ Kyle Orton and New England’s Ryan Mallett. And all Palmer has done in 10 years is throw for nearly 34,000 yards and 213 touchdowns.

Among other scores that have been reported were those of NFC West quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick (37) and Sam Bradford (36).
TEMPE, Ariz. -- When coach Bruce Arians was hired last January, he had visions of going deep.

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

He didn't quite reach that mark.

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

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

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

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

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

The rules were simple, really, but the choice was not. The question all 32 of our NFL Nation reporters asked 10 anonymous players on the teams they cover was this: Which player would you most like to see play in the Super Bowl ... and he could not be a teammate, nor could he have already played on Super Sunday.

By a margin of just three votes, the players chose Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (59 votes) over retiring Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (56).

And yes, the Oakland Raiders players I surveyed felt the same -- about Peterson. Two voted for Peterson and two others went with Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III. One did, however, cast his lot with Gonzalez, who was this close to going to the Super Bowl last season. Alas ...

In our league-wide vote, 88 players received votes, with Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson (26) finishing a distant third.

No Raiders player finished in the top six, with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson fulfilling the wishes of 15 players surveyed, Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson picking up 14 votes and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick 11 votes.

The most interesting player to get a vote in the Oakland locker room? Carson Palmer.
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- The Oakland Raiders traded away Carson Palmer after a 4,018-yard passing season in 2012 ... and he threw for a career-high 4,274 yards with the Arizona Cardinals in 2013.

The Raiders traded for Matt Flynn in hopes he would become a franchise quarterback ... and he washed out and was cut in October, after one start.

Oakland used a fourth-round draft pick to select Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson ... only to waive him twice, sign him to the practice squad twice and watch him leave when the Tennessee Titans picked him up.

[+] EnlargeOakland's Matt McGloin and Terrelle Pryor
AP Photo/Tony AvelarNeither Oakland coach Dennis Allen nor GM Reggie McKenzie is sure if the Raiders' QB of the future is on the roster.
With so much QB carnage in such a short amount of time, is general manager Reggie McKenzie confident in his staff's ability to identify and properly scout a quarterback?

"Yes I am," McKenzie said Thursday in a 45-minute sit down with six reporters who cover the team regularly.

The differing skill sets of Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin essentially split the season, and in his final media conference of the season coach Dennis Allen said he was not sure if the quarterback of the future was in the building.

I asked McKenzie if he shared Allen's view and, if so, how he attacks that shortcoming.

McKenzie nodded.

"I'm not sure either," he said. "We've got two young players who played this year (and) from an experience standpoint there wasn't any, so neither one of them stepped up and said, ‘I'm the franchise quarterback.' So absolutely, we're going to always continue to upgrade and find that guy. Now how we find them, we'll figure that out in the next few months, to what's available to us."

McKenzie allowed that with so much youth and inexperience under center last season, the Raiders need a veteran presence. And, perhaps, that is why they recently signed Trent Edwards to a reserve/future contract.

"He's a senior guy that's been there, done that," McKenzie said. "You're talking about what we have in place now, even around the building here in the next month or so, you've got a guy that our young guys can bounce stuff off of. And starting that process ASAP, I think, is important for the young guys."

That does not mean, however, that the Raiders are done tinkering with the position. Far from it. Not when the Raiders still have the No. 5 overall pick in May's draft.

Yes, McKenzie was asked about Texas A&M's polarizing Johnny Manziel.

"He's a playmaker," McKenzie said with a smile. "Whether it's him or whether it's any one of these other guys, when you can add a playmaker to your team that's what you're shooting for. Be it the draft, be it (a) free agent. It doesn't matter. And Johnny is a playmaker."

Still, McKenzie said he'd be reluctant to start a rookie quarterback again and would rather build the team up around one until he was ready to play.

"You have to make sure you surround those young players like that with good football players, whether it's weapons, protection from an offensive line standpoint, run game," McKenzie said. "If you're going to talk about playing a rookie, I think the fair way to do it is surround him (with talent), not just ride his shoulders. It's hard. I don't care how good the rookie is.

"To make him do everything his first year is not an easy task. You'd rather not. You'd rather have a guy in place who can get you through the season, especially the early part of the season."

Hence the addition of someone like an Edwards. And McKenzie said he has no true preference for a style of quarterback, be it a runner like Pryor, who rushed for a franchise single-season record 527 yards, including a 93-yard TD run that set an NFL record, or a pocket passer like McGloin, who had a QB rating of 76.1.

Still, neither Pryor, who started nine games and threw for 1,7,98 yards on 57.4 percent passing with 7 TDs and 11 INTs, nor McGloin, who was 1-5 as the starter, truly commandeering the job last season left room for introspection.

"With Terrelle I thought he started out pretty good," McKenzie said. "But it was the inconsistency and making the decisions, whether to throw, whether to run, avoid (the pass rush) and get rid of the ball. Whatever it is, that needs to continue to improve and he was too inconsistent there.

"Terrelle's got a ways to go with the decision making and the timing of throwing (to) guys (who are) open in that regard."

And McGloin, who completed 55.9 percent of his passes for 1,547 yards with 8 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in seven games?

"I thought he came in and I thought he did a pretty good job for what he was asked to do," McKenzie said. "He was confident in where he could throw the ball, his timing, his decision-making. Kind of sputtered a little bit, trying to throw the football when he shouldn't have.

"I thought McGloin showed some positive things that looked like a real quarterback from a standpoint of getting the ball out of his hands and, not being the greatest of mobile, moving, running guys, he didn't take a lot of sacks. So ... to be looked at as one of the non-athletic quarterbacks, per se, he did a good job of getting the ball out of his hand and not putting us in a negative yard-situation. So, you like some of the things there. If you can build on it and get better with the throws and the timing and all that, he should be solid."

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