(SportsNetwork.com) - A five-win improvement under first-year head coach Bruce Arians didn't get the Arizona Cardinals into the playoffs, but it did confirm that the franchise is headed in the right direction.
The fact that the Cardinals did not make the playoffs despite a 10-6 record, their first 10-win season since their last postseason appearance in 2009, further cemented the NFC West as perhaps the toughest division in all of football and forced the franchise to remain aggressive in getting better.
Given the battles the club will go through as it attempts to climb to the top of the hill in the division, it is no surprise that the Cardinals bulked up on both sides of the ball. They added massive offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, a big blocking tight end in rookie Troy Niklas, and two physical defenders in cornerback Antonio Cromartie along with safety and first-round pick Deone Bucannon.
Mix in a dash of speed at receiver in Ted Ginn, Jr. and another capable catcher in tight end John Carlson, and the Cardinals look to be even better on offense in 2014.
"I think this is by far the most talented team I have ever been on, top to bottom," said quarterback and 11-year pro Carson Palmer.
Palmer has something to do with that talent level after helping the offense improve its scoring by 129 points from its five-win 2012 campaign to last year. The offense went ranked from 32nd to 12th, and its 5,542 yards were the fifth most in a single season in team history.
In the end, only a slow start prevented the Cardinals from making the playoffs as they went 7-2 over their last nine games.
The defense did its part, giving up an NFL-low 84.4 yards per game on the ground, but the unit took a big hit when linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for at least the next year due to another violation of the league's substance-abuse policy.
Washington missed the first four games of last season due to a previous violation of the policy.
"It's completely unacceptable that Daryl has once again put us in this position," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said in a statement. "We all know what the consequences are and will deal with them. From a personal standpoint, our hope is that this suspension will give Daryl the opportunity to accept the necessary help and guidance to get his life back on track and we will certainly support him however we can."
Washington's suspension leaves the Cardinals thin at inside linebacker after the club also lost Karlos Dansby to free agency, so Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will have to work some magic again.
2013 RECORD: 10-6 (3rd, NFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2009, lost to New Orleans Saints in divisional round
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Bruce Arians (10-6, second season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Harold Goodwin (second season with Cardinals)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Todd Bowles (second season with Cardinals)
KEY ADDITIONS: RB Jonathan Dwyer (from Steelers), TE Troy Niklas (second round, Notre Dame), TE John Carlson (from Vikings), WR Ted Ginn, Jr. (from Panthers), WR John Brown (third round, Pittsburgh State), G Ted Larsen (from Buccaneers), T Jared Veldheer (from Raiders), DT Isaac Sopoaga (from Patriots), DE Kareem Martin (3rd Round, North Carolina), LB Larry Foote (from Steelers), CB Antonio Cromartie (from Jets), SS Deone Bucannon (first round, Washington State)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Ryan Lindley (released), RB Rashard Mendenhall (retired), RB Ryan Williams (to Cowboys), TE Jim Dray (to Browns), TE Jake Ballard (retired), WR Andre Roberts (to Redskins), G Daryn Colledge (to Dolphins), T Eric Winston (to Seahawks) LB Jasper Brinkley (to Vikings), LB Karlos Dansby (to Browns), LB Dontay Moch (to Bengals), CB Javier Arenas (to Falcons), CB Antoine Cason (to Panthers)
QB: The Cardinals sent a pair of draft picks to the Oakland Raiders for Palmer last April and the veteran responded with one of his best seasons. He threw a career-high 4,274 yards with 24 touchdown passes, but was also picked off a personal-high 22 times.
Still, Palmer's passing yards were the third most in team history and made him the first player in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards with three different teams (Cincinnati: 2006-07, Oakland: 2012).
Palmer also was able to start all 16 games, so backup Drew Stanton remains without an NFL game to his resume for the past three years.
More bad news for Stanton was the fourth-round selection of former Virginia Tech star Logan Thomas. While Arians insists that Stanton will remain the backup, there is a lot to like about Thomas and the fact remains that Palmer just turned 34 this past December.
Thomas, though, still needs to develop his skill set as he combines a powerful arm with the ability to run, but also has accuracy issues.
"When you are talking about a developmental quarterback, and in these rounds that is what they all are, you want a guy that has all the tools," said Arians, adding that Thomas had one of the best arms he has seen in years.
RB: Overall, the Cardinals struggled on the ground last season as they averaged only 96.3 yards per game, but they are hoping that second-year back Andre Ellington can provide a season-long spark.
Ellington ran for 652 yards on 118 carries a year ago, good for an average of 5.5 yards per attempt. That led all NFL players with a minimum of 100 attempts and the Clemson product totaled 1,023 yards from scrimmage as the backup to Rashard Mendenhall.
Mendenhall, though, hit free agency following an injury-slowed campaign and actually retired from football before evening turning 27, leaving bigger workload for Ellington.
"He's so explosive, he's so quick and then you want to put him in the pass game because he's so good in the pass game," Palmer told Arizona's website of the new No. 1 back. "It's so hard to predict. He'll have x amount of yards, x amount of catches because he is so talented in both. Selfishly I want to use him in the pass game but selfishly I want to use him in the run game too."
The departure of Mendenhall also moves another second-year back up the depth chart in Stepfan Taylor, who excelled last season in a short-yardage role, while former Pittsburgh Steeler back Jonathan Dwyer signed on with the team as well.
WR: Arizona getting its quarterback situation settled with Palmer paid off for Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals hope to have rounded out the unit with some new faces.
After a subpar 2012 campaign, Fitzgerald bounced back last year with 82 receptions for 954 yards and, more importantly, his fifth career season of at least 10 touchdown grabs. Only nine players in NFL history have reached the 10-touchdown mark in five or more years.
Palmer's presence and Fitzgerald's bounce-back campaign also led to Michael Floyd breaking out in this second NFL campaign with 65 catches and a team-high 1,041 yards with five scoring grabs.
Looking to stretch the field even more, the Cards signed Ginn to a three-year deal as he posted a career best of 15.4 average yards per catch last season with Carolina. Though more of a contributor in the return game, getting Ginn down the field on routes will open up even more room for Fitzgerald.
Undrafted Clemson product Jaron Brown has also worked his way into the rotation after appearing in all 16 games as a rookie last season, while John Brown was a third-round pick out of Division II Pittsburgh State. He is another speed guy, having run a 4.34-second 40-yard dash that was the second- fastest among wide receivers behind only Brandin Cooks of Oregon State.
TE: Arizona has a nice mix of size and capable hands at the tight end spot, giving the club solid options when putting two on the field.
Rob Housler returns after making 39 receptions for a career-high 454 yards and added the first TD catch of his career.
Housler will look to progress again this season and a healthy Carlson would help. Carlson has made 177 catches for 1,906 yards with 14 touchdowns over his career, but has been slowed of late by injury.
The wild card of the mix is Niklas, who at 6-foot-6, 270 pounds is the big blocking tight end the Cardinals need to replace free agent departee Jim Dray. However, a second-round pick is pretty high to spend on a blocking tight end, so Arizona obviously will look for the Notre Dame product to develop into a pass catcher as well.
That could take some time given his raw skill and his late start at the position (he played on the offensive and defensive line in high school and also played linebacker at Notre Dame), but the DNA makeup is there given his uncle is Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews and his cousin, Jake Matthews, was a first-round pick by Atlanta.
"It's totally upgraded for what we wanted to do," said Arians of the tight end spot. "We feel the position is really solid right now. Obviously, we like tight ends. We use a lot of them."
OL: Palmer's blindside will get a big upgrade this season with the signing of Veldheer to take over at left tackle and the return of Jonathan Cooper to left guard. Cooper was the seventh overall pick of the 2013 draft, but suffered a broken leg in the preseason and missed the entire campaign.
With those two joining the mix, only center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Paul Fanaika are projected to return as starters from last year, with right tackle likely to go back to Bobby Massie.
Massie made 16 starts in 2012 after getting taken in the fourth round, but fell behind the curve the following year when the new coaching staff came in. He ended up playing in only eight games as Arizona signed veteran Eric Winston, but he was not brought back.
Ted Larsen was signed to back up at center, while Earl Watford is in line to get some playing time as Cooper has struggled in his return.
DL: Having already lost a pair of leaders at linebacker, the Cardinals saw stud defensive tackle Darnell Dockett go down with a season-ending ACL tear in his right knee during practice on Aug. 18.
Dockett was a key piece to the line, having played in 158 of a possible 160 regular season games dating back to his 2004 rookie campaign, and he notched 46 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks and 12 tackles for loss last year.
"He's a player we count on, week in and week out, to be a leader," said defensive end Calais Campbell, who will now take on a bigger vocal role.
Campbell made plenty of noise on the field last season with nine sacks and a safety, while veteran Frostee Rucker will move up the depth chart to replace Dockett.
That loss will also speed up playing time for a pair of rookies in third-round pick Kareem Martin and Ed Stinson, a fifth-round choice. Martin displayed a ton of athleticism at North Carolina to go along with a 6-foot-6, 272-pound frame, while Stinson is a durable tackler.
Nose tackles Dan Williams and Alameda Ta'amu will be counted on to stop the run and the massive Isaac Sopoaga was signed shortly after Dockett's injury.
LB: Dansby was by far Arizona's leading tackler last season and a great veteran presence, but the writing was on the wall given that the Cardinals spent a high 2013 second-round pick on Kevin Minter.
What the franchise didn't anticipate when letting Dansby go via free agency was again losing Washington, a talented player who had 75 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions in 12 games last season.
To Arians's credit, he has his team moving on from Washington for at least this season.
"This is the last time this will be addressed by the Cardinals," Arians said back in June of Washington's suspension. "We will not talk about guys who are not with us. We hope Daryl gets his life straightened out, but he was also very unaccountable to his teammates, the organization, the fans and everybody else."
It will be hard not to talk about Washington if veteran Larry Foote, signed before Washington was suspended, can't rebound after playing in just one game a season ago with Pittsburgh before suffering a ruptured biceps. Arizona is hoping for a Dansby-like rebound out of Foote in his 13th season.
Veteran backup Lorenzo Alexander is also returning from injury -- limited to three games with Arizona last year due to a foot injury -- while second-year pro Kenny Demens got into just two games in 2013.
Things are a bit more stable on the outside, led by the NFL's active sack leader in John Abraham, who added 11 1/2 sacks last season to his career total of 133 1/2. Abraham, though, could also be in line for a suspension sometime in the future for a second DUI arrest in June which kept him away from training camp until mid-August. The veteran spent time at a rehab facility during his time away from the Cards.
Those off-the-field issues coupled with the fact Abraham is 36 years old means Sam Acho, 25, and sophomore Alex Okafor figure to see time as well opposite strong-side starter Matt Shaughnessy.
DB: Arizona is making a push to challenge Seattle for the best secondary in football, setting up what should be an entertaining and physical rivalry.
For the Cardinals, it starts with Patrick Peterson, the fifth overall pick of the 2011 draft. Already a three-time Pro Bowl selection -- once as a special teamer -- Peterson notched 42 tackles, three interceptions and a career-high 30 passes defensed last year, then turned that into a new five-year deal signed at the start of camp that runs through 2020.
"I want to be in the Hall of Fame one day," declared Peterson after the deal was announced. "I have bigger goals than a massive contract. I've never been to the playoffs since I've been here. I want to bring a championship to this city, to his organization, to the community."
Once a three-way weapon, having at times lined up at receiver, the Cards are understandably taking punt return duties away from the star corner, made possible with the signing of Ginn.
Starting opposite the athletics Peterson will be Antonio Cromartie, who joined the Cardinals on a one-year deal after getting cut by the New York Jets. Owner of 28 career interceptions, Cromartie has the size to be a physical presence at the line.
Backing up the corners in center field are a pair of young and talented safeties in Tyrann Mathieu and Bucannon.
The Cardinals rolled the dice, looking past potential character issues with Mathieu to in effect steal him in the third round of the 2013 draft. He put together an excellent and trouble-free campaign with 68 tackles and two interceptions before tearing his ACL and LCL in his left knee during Week 14. Mathieu returned to practice last week.
Arizona moved down in the draft and took Bucannon, one of the bigger and quicker safeties available in the draft. However, he slipped behind the likes of Calvin Pryor and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as he still needs to develop a big, so he'll start behind strong safety Tony Jefferson on the depth chart for now.
"I don't want to mention him in the same breath as Adrian Wilson, but there are some physical similarities and the same type of mentality that we were looking for. He is a great young man," Keim said.
The addition of Cromartie will shift 2013 starter Jerraud Powers inside, while corner Justin Bethel is a key special teams contributor.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Jay Feely's 127 points last season were the second most in club history, but he lost his training camp battle with rookie Chandler Catanzaro due to the latter's big leg on kickoffs.
"They were both about the same field-goal-wise," Arians said. "Kickoffs obviously were a huge difference although Jay really improved his. I just like the strength of (Catanzaro's) leg for a young guy. There is a very good demeanor about him."
Punter Dave Zastudil is an archer with his leg, setting a single-season record in 2012 with 46 punts inside the 20-yard line, then sticking another 35 inside the line last year.
Ginn, meanwhile, is in line to return both kicks and punts, freeing up Peterson and replacing Javier Arenas, who is now with Atlanta. Ginn is one of just 14 players in NFL history, and four active players, with multiple rushing, receiving, punt return and kickoff return touchdowns.
Long snapper Mike Leach has appeared in 184 consecutive games heading, including all 16 games over the last 11 seasons, the past five of those with Arizona. His games played streak ranks as the longest among active NFL long snappers and the third-longest among active players.
COACHING: Arians has made a habit of winning in his short time as an NFL head coach.
After going 9-3 as interim coach with Indianapolis in 2012, winning Coach of the Year honors, he quickly put together a staff and roster that resulted in one of the franchise's biggest one-season turnarounds. He joined Norm Barry in 1925 as the only coaches in club history to win at least 10 games in their first season.
THE SKINNY: Arizona took some major steps forward last year and the offense figures to be just as good, if not better, with another year of experience in the system under Palmer's belt and a few big additions.
That makes the injury to Dockett and suspension of Washington even more unfortunate for this group, one that figured to be keyed by strong defensive play and support by the offense.
Arians was able to get the most out of his club a season ago and will need more-than-expected production now out of some young players and aging veterans, a tall task given the powerful state of the NFC West.