GLENDALE, Ariz. – Defense carried Arizona to a 10-6 record in coach Bruce Arians' first season with the Cardinals.
The playmaking heart of that unit was the inside linebacker duo of Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington, and neither will be a Cardinal this season. Dansby, the team's leading tackler for his one season back in Arizona, left to sign with Cleveland. Washington was suspended for a year for a repeat violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy.
So, as training camp opens this weekend, the position will be under the scrutiny of Arians and his defensive staff.
Kevin Minter, a second-round draft choice out of LSU last year, has been penciled in at Dansby's spot. Minter played only one down on defense as a rookie and is eager to show he can do the job.
"It's exciting when you're able to actually do what you were brought in here to do," he said during offseason workouts. "I paid my dues last year, I feel like, just standing by Karlos and watching him, watching a true professional work, and I feel like it's my time now."
Minter takes Dansby's place as the defensive signal caller.
"You're the leader of the defense, big shoes to fill," Arians said.
Washington's job should have some intense competition. When the team reports Friday, Lorenzo Alexander, shifted from outside linebacker to the inside job he's played before, leads the depth chart. Alexander has said that while there's no doubt about the talents of Dansby and Washington, much of their success came from the scheme of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. And, unlike those two, Bowles will be back.
Here are some things to look for when camp opens:
NEW-LOOK LINE: The offensive line was a problem for Arizona, especially early in the season, and the unit will have an almost entirely new look.
Arizona's biggest free agent addition, literally, is mammoth left tackle Jared Veldheer, filling a position where the Cardinals have struggled for years.
Jonathan Cooper, a first-round draft pick a year ago who missed all of last season with a broken leg, is the left guard. Lyle Sendlein is back at center, but competition abounds on the right side, where Earl Watford and Paul Fanaika are in the mix at guard, with Bobbie Massey and Bradley Sowell fighting for the tackle job. There's a crowd at tight end, including free agent signee John Carlson, second-round draft pick Troy Niklas and returnee Rob Housler.
PALMER'S PROGRESS: Carson Palmer had a tough time mastering Arians' intricate offense but improved greatly in the last half of last season. In the first eight games, he threw for 10 touchdowns and was intercepted 13 times. In the second half, he had 14 touchdowns and eight picks.
Now, with the system in his grasp, Palmer is expecting a vastly improved offense.
"It feels so good to be confident and be comfortable and know the guys around you know what they're doing," Palmer said.
Despite his early struggles last season, Palmer surpassed the 4,000-yard passing mark for the fourth time in his career, with three teams.
ELECTRIC ELLINGTON: Andre Ellington quietly arrived as a sixth-round draft pick and emerged as an electrifying runner and receiver.
He played spot duty behind the now-retired Rashard Mendenhall. This year, Arians has him penciled in as the feature back with about 25 touches (as a runner or receiver) each game.
The only question is whether the slightly build Ellington can weather the wear and tear.
THIRD RECEIVER: The Cardinals have a big-time duo in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, but there will be a battle to replace the departed Andre Roberts as the No. 3 receiver.
Among the intriguing prospects is speedster John Brown, a third-round draft pick from Pittsburg State (Kansas). Brown would give Arizona the deep threat it has lacked.
Arizona picked up more speed in signing Ted Ginn Jr., who they plan to use as a receiver as well as a kick returner.
MATHIEU'S HEALTH: Tyrann Mathieu could hardly have done better to change his ways and his image in his rookie season a year ago.
One of the NFL's feel-good stories, Mathieu became a pesky safety with a knack for getting to the ball, working his way into the starting lineup in a hurry. But he went down with torn ACL and LCL ligaments and is still working his way back.
It's questionable whether he will be ready before the season begins.
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