2017 NFL Preview: Cardinals' time to contend might be running out

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

A year ago, I believed in the Arizona Cardinals. From last year’s preview:

“I really like this Cardinals team and think the Chandler Jones addition was perfect for them. It’s crazy that five teams are getting better Super Bowl odds than the Cardinals. This might be the best team in football.”

Yeah, about that. It didn’t work out that way. The Cardinals weren’t the best team in football. They were 7-8-1.

Still, I don’t think that was a sign the Cardinals are on their way out. I think they’ll bounce back to some extent in 2017. What’s beyond this season for a team with some aging stars is anyone’s guess.

A year ago in the Cardinals preview, I laid out the case that Carson Palmer would be just fine after a tough finish the season before. He was an MVP candidate in 2015 until he hurt his finger late in the season. It seemed reasonable that the injury would heal and Palmer would play well again in 2016. He didn’t, but a late surge gives some hope for 2017.

Palmer looked like an old quarterback through November, but turned it around over Arizona’s final five games:

September-November: 252-414, 2,913 yards, 15 TD, 11 INT, 83.3 rating
December-January: 112-183, 1,302 yards, 11 TD, 3 INT, 95.9 rating

At 37, Palmer is a year-to-year proposition. He could totally lose it at any time, and it looked for a while like he had already. Going back to the last few games of 2015, including playoffs, Palmer had a long stretch of average (and, sometimes bad) football. However, he also has mostly played well under Bruce Arians and finished last season strong. Palmer considered retirement but came back for another season, which shows how close he is to the end. He’s a mystery going into this season. That’s scary for Arizona.

He’s not the only Cardinals star who might be nearing the end. Larry Fitzgerald has said he’ll talk about his playing future only once, as training camp starts. Every season could be his last, and the Cardinals will have a tough time replacing him. Arians’ health problems and his age (64) also makes you wonder how long he’ll coach.

If this Cardinals season was a movie, Palmer, Fitzgerald and Arians would win a Super Bowl this season and ride off into the sunset. That might be asking a lot, but a return to a playoff level isn’t. Stud running back David Johnson and a strong defense form a good foundation.

Johnson had an incredible 2016 season. The Cardinals coaches talked him up all last offseason and he delivered with 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns. Had Arizona posted a better record, he might have won NFL offensive player of the year. The 373 touches he received are scary, but any cumulative effect of an insane workload shouldn’t take hold yet. And Johnson isn’t shying away from Arians’ proclamation that he could get 30 touches a game.

Arizona also had a defense that didn’t get as much credit as it should have. The Cardinals allowed the second fewest yards in the NFL, finished third in net yards per attempt against the run and the past, tied for fourth with 28 takeaways and led the NFL in sacks. That’s a heck of a defensive season, though some key pieces left via free agency.

The offense wasn’t good enough to match that. The Cardinals relied on Johnson too much because Palmer struggled. The offensive line and an unreliable set of receivers didn’t help either.

The Cardinals were still in the championship contender bin a year ago. They won 34 games from 2013-15 and made an NFC championship game. It seemed in 2016, as they fell out of the playoffs, the window was closing. Maybe they have one more shot before the window closes for good.

Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald will try to lead the Cardinals back to the playoffs. (AP)

Repeating that great defensive season will be tough without defensive end Calais Campbell, safeties Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger and cornerback Marcus Cooper. They all left in free agency. The loss of Campbell, a longtime leader of the defense, is especially tough. And Jefferson was coming off a great season. The Cardinals can replace some of that talent – they really need 2016 first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche to get it together in a hurry to fill Campbell’s spot – but that’s a lot to lose in one offseason. Safety Antoine Bethea and kicker Phil Dawson were the only players that got more than $3 million per season from the Cardinals in free agency. Dawson should help a kicking game that really stung Arizona last season. The draft was strong, as linebacker Haason Reddick and safety Budda Baker should immediately help fill some holes on the defense. Still, it was a tough offseason. Grade: D

The Cardinals became way too dependent on David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald last season. Michael Floyd was unreliable, and eventually cut. That might be addition by subtraction. The hope is that positive reports on receiver John Brown carry over. Brown played last season with a cyst on his spine and through symptoms from sickle-cell trait, and his play suffered. Reports say he is healthy again, and he’s a 1,000-yard receiver if he is. Then maybe there’s more production coming from J.J. Nelson or rookie third-round pick Chad Williams. But there should be more options in the Cardinals offense this season, and that would help tremendously.

If David Johnson goes down – and any running back is at risk of that, especially one with an extreme workload – I don’t know what the Cardinals would do. The drop-off from starter to backup at tailback for the Cardinals has to be one of steepest in the NFL. Kerwynn Williams has been solid in a reserve role but has just 98 career carries. Andre Ellington has done very little since his promising rookie season, and spent the offseason bouncing between receiver and running back. Johnson is a top-three NFL running back and the Cardinals have little depth behind him. If he went down, it seems like the Cardinals season would take a nosedive.

The Cardinals had seven picks in this year’s draft, and none of them were used on a quarterback. Arizona had the 13th pick in the first round, and watched as Mitch Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson were selected ahead of them. Mahomes and Watson went 10th and 12th after teams traded up and ahead of the Cardinals. Apparently the Cardinals didn’t like Davis Webb or Nathan Peterman or any of the other quarterbacks who went after the first round, either. Spending a valuable draft pick on a quarterback when you still have championship hopes is tough. But Carson Palmer will turn 38 years old before the end of the season, and he wasn’t great most of last season. Drew Stanton isn’t a top-level quarterback. Blaine Gabbert isn’t either. Neither one is a reasonable replacement if Palmer retires. You don’t want to have to be searching for a quarterback when you desperately need one but by putting off getting their quarterback of the future, the Cardinals will soon find themselves in that bind.

Defensive back Tyrann Mathieu has never been shy.

“Any time I’m healthy I feel like I’m the best defensive player in the NFL,” Mathieu said, according to the Sporting News.

The Cardinals hope they see that healthy version of Mathieu. Since tearing his ACL late in the 2015 season, it’s been a tough road for one of the league’s best playmakers. He played just 10 games last season due to a shoulder injury, and his numbers were well off his All-Pro season of 2015. With the Cardinals losing so much defensive talent over the offseason, they need Mathieu to be back to his dominant self. Mathieu’s issues last season are a big reason the Cardinals missed the playoffs.

From Yahoo’s Dalton Del Don: “John Brown is coming off a nightmare season in which he posted career-low numbers across the board while dealing with multiple injuries, including a cyst on his spine. As a result, his current ADP sits as the WR41. Brown had the cyst removed during the offseason and reportedly feels much better, and remember, this is a receiver who topped 1,000 yards with seven scores (in 15 games) as a sophomore two years ago, when he also got 9.9 yards-per-target, which was the second highest in football (minimum 100 targets). Michael Floyd is gone, and Larry Fitzgerald is 34 years old, so there isn’t a WR going so late with near the amount of upside as Brown.” [Check out Yahoo’s Pressing Questions for the fantasy outlook on the Cardinals.]

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The Cardinals went from first in the NFL in net yards per pass attempt in 2015 (7.8) to 23rd last season (6.0). That’s a massive drop. It can be blamed on Carson Palmer, his receivers (particularly John Brown’s health issues) or an offensive line that allowed 14 more sacks than the season before. Whatever the cause, the Cardinals need to find a way to fix it. Bruce Arians’ offense relies heavily on taking shots downfield. Larry Fitzgerald is great in his new role from the slot. David Johnson is a tremendous receiver out of the backfield. But they aren’t deep threats, and the Cardinals desperately need that for the offense to function properly.

DO THE CARDINALS HAVE ENOUGH AT CORNERBACK OPPOSITE PATRICK PETERSON?

Peterson is one of the NFL’s best, a corner who can shadow the opponent’s best player and fare well. But when the Cardinals don’t have a quality No. 2 cornerback, nobody throws Peterson’s way. Peterson was the least-targeted NFL cornerback last season, with a ball thrown in his way once every 8.5 passes according to the Arizona Republic. That might repeat this season. Marcus Cooper, who started 13 games last season, signed with Chicago. Brandon Williams, who lost his job to Cooper early last season, and Justin Bethel, referred to as a “failure in progress” by Bruce Arians late last season, are the two favorites for the No. 2 cornerback job. Maybe someone further down the depth chart will rise up during preseason. But having a world-class cornerback like Peterson doesn’t matter quite as much if opponents just pick on the corner on the other side.

I’m not going to say Arizona can go to a Super Bowl, but we’re starting to get to the point in the countdown where these teams all have a puncher’s chance. The Cardinals came close two seasons ago. David Johnson gives the team a superstar at running back. If Carson Palmer’s late-season revival carries over and a receiver other than Larry Fitzgerald has a big year – we’re talking about John Brown here – then Arizona has a lot to be excited about. Go back and watch last season’s impressive 34-31 Week 16 win at Seattle. That’s what Arizona is capable of.

A lot of this falls on Carson Palmer’s shoulders. He looked like he had really fallen off most of last season. If the Palmer from the first three months of last season shows up in 2017, it’s hard to see the Cardinals going very far. It’s possible that Arizona has another losing season, Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald retire and Bruce Arians follows them. Then we’re looking at the Cardinals going from an NFC championship game in January of 2016 to starting a long rebuild two years later.

Arizona wasn’t that bad last season. The Cardinals outscored opponents by 56 points, which is rare for a team with a losing record. The defense was outstanding and David Johnson was a revelation. I think Arizona will play very well this season. The schedule is among the easiest in the NFL, too. The NFC is really tough and deep so I’m not picking the Cardinals to make the playoffs, but it wouldn’t be a big surprise if they did. This is still a supremely talented roster.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
15. Cincinnati Bengals
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!