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Arizona Cardinals working through injuries with aplomb

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NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» Will Brian Hoyer be in Cleveland next season?
» The secret to the Lions' defensive success.
» Projected franchise-tag numbers.
And much more, beginning with Arizona's approach to dealing with a potentially daunting challenge. ...

Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was sending three of his captains to midfield for a coin toss in street clothes, so he figured he'd grab one of them and get his message across.

"I told (Darnell) Dockett, 'This year, you're gonna be our Bundini Brown,' " Arians recalled during a Thursday afternoon phone conversation. "He looked at me funny. So I said, 'You don't know who that is, do you?' He looked it up, and came back to me and said, 'I like that.' "

Brown was a cornerman for legendary boxer Muhammad Ali (full disclosure: I had to ask about Brown, too). And, as (bad) luck would have it, Arians has an All-Pro army of Browns on his side of the ring early this year.

Dockett tore his ACL in August. Linebacker John Abraham joined the defensive lineman on injured reserve due to a chronic concussion issue that lingered into September. Linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for the year back in the spring, and quarterback Carson Palmer was sidelined for three games with a nerve issue that affected his throwing arm.

And yet, the Cardinals are 4-1 and sit atop the NFC West.

What Arians has done over the season's first six weeks is, to be sure, pretty remarkable. But dealing with what Arizona has dealt with is also becoming an increasingly common part of a head coach's job description.

From 2000 to 2005, no more than 262 players landed on injured reserve in a single season, and that number dipped as low as 192 (in 2001). In 2006, the figure rose to 282 -- and it's been higher than that every year since. Consider also that the total topped 300 just once from 2000 to 2009 -- but it's been comfortably above 300 in each of the past four seasons (350 in 2010, 317 in 2011, 344 in 2012, 316 in 2013). This year, there are already 177 players on IR, with another 25 on the relatively new injured reserve/designated for return list.

Asked if managing major injuries is more a part of his job than it's ever been, Arians didn't hesitate. "There's no question," he said.

Yearly injured reserve totals
Year
Players on IR
2000
215
2001
192
2002
234
2003
239
2004
262
2005
250
2006
282
2007
316
2008
287
2009
298
2010
350
2011
317
2012
344
2013
316
2014*
177
*Through Week 6.

"The biggest thing is, having great trust with your GM," Arians continued. "We're filling spots and building the bottom of the roster for these reasons. And they can't all be young guys. What we try to do is get a quality vet and a couple young guys at each spot, so if you need immediate help, you get the veteran in there, and keep teaching your young guys."

Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' front four has been completely wiped out: no Abraham, no Dockett and, for now, no Matt Shaughnessy (placed on IR/designated for return earlier this month) or Calais Campbell (who's been dealing with a knee injury). The potential of facing this kind of scenario, however, is why general manager Steve Keim kept the cupboard stocked with vets like Tommy Kelly and Dan Williams and second-year pro Alex Okafor. And despite all the personnel losses, the Cardinals' defense still ranks in the top 10 in points allowed.

There are also cases in which the GM and coach have to collaborate on the fly.

"Last year, we had no speed," Arians said. "Teddy Williams was a DB for us in Indy (where Arians was coaching in 2012), a track guy, and I said, 'I'll put his ass at receiver.' He was healthy, we signed him (in 2013), he'd never played receiver, and he catches a 51-yarder and makes a tackle as a gunner. (Keim and I) knew what we needed, and just thought about it; We need a guy for these five plays. That's what you have to do."

Arians says the faith he puts in his relationship with Keim is a product of seeing things set up similarly as an assistant in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. Of course, dealing with injuries goes beyond the relationship. It's about finding the right players, which isn't exactly easy. The numbers above indicate that each team in 2014 can count on losing 10 to 12 players for the season over the course of the calendar year -- that's about 20 percent of the roster. So what can a team do to prepare as well as Arizona has?

» Draft well late. You won't hit on all your fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks. But harvesting a few solid prospects -- who will be on the books for four years at relatively low expense to the team -- is key. "You do that, you'll have a more sustainable team," said an AFC GM. "The NFL's become a developmental league, with the amount of juniors coming out, and the way college football is played. You have to develop them."

» Manage the practice squad. In a pinch, it's easier to hand snaps to someone who's in your meeting rooms and on your practice field. And this year's addition of two players to each practice squad and the relaxing of the rules have allowed for the formation of deeper, more experienced groups. "They're in your camp, learning your game plans, in shape and more ready to go," said an NFC personnel exec.

» Be deep where you're good. The Cardinals' defensive line is one example. The Saints' tight end position is another: Veteran Benjamin Watson and rising prospect Josh Hill are providing depth while Jimmy Graham deals with his troublesome shoulder. The Lions' defensive line, where vets like Jason Jones and C.J. Mosley are behind the stars, is a third one. You don't want a strength to suddenly become a weakness.

» Find reps. Whether it's warranted or not, football people believe the offseason rules governing workouts have resulted in less-conditioned athletes who are prone to "acceleration" injuries. They also make it harder to build depth, because there are only so many reps to go around. Arians has worked to solve that issue by running two practices at once when the roster is at 90 and, during the season, building in 10 minutes at the end of padded work, specifically for younger guys, to have them ready.

Last year, the AFC title game between New England and Denver was played without Patriots cornerstones Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Rob Gronkowski or Broncos stars Ryan Clady, Von Miller and Chris Harris. Denver then advanced to the Super Bowl to face a Seahawks team that had barely had Percy Harvin at all prior to the game and went half the season without left tackle Russell Okung.

What's obvious is that the NFL season is more about surviving such obstacles than it's ever been. And so far, Arizona is one of the teams handling that issue with aplomb.

"It does galvanize you," said Arians. "It becomes us against the world. I looked it up and saw that Green Bay and the Giants had 12, 13 guys on IR the years they won. So you deal with it."

Fact is, staying healthy as a team isn't easy to do over the course of a 16-game season. But history shows -- and the Cardinals are proving again -- that it's also not always necessary when it comes to getting where you want to go.

Four downs

1) The Hoyer conundrum: Hometown kid, Bill Belichick castoff, heady player, winner ... that's Brian Hoyer we're talking about, not Bernie Kosar. But the way Hoyer has been playing, it'd be easy to make some on-field comparisons to the former Cleveland Browns quarterback, too. No, the Browns haven't ridden to their 3-2 start aboard Hoyer's back -- that wouldn't be consistent with how Mike Pettine is building the team. What has happened this season is simpler. Hoyer's been efficient (posting a 99.5 quarterback rating and 8.2 yards per attempt, fourth-best in the league) and clutch (in close wins over New Orleans and Tennessee), giving his coaches no choice but to keep first-round pick Johnny Manziel on ice. Will this fairy tale include a 2015 chapter? That much is uncertain. Hoyer -- whose contract runs out after this season -- and the Browns haven't discussed a new deal since May, and for now, it makes sense for both sides to wait. On the Browns' end, giving Hoyer even lower-tier starter money now would be risky. Imagine if his fast start were to peter out, leaving the team with a brand-new QB contract on the books, a first-round pick who hasn't played and another crazy offseason ahead. As for Hoyer, the gamble on himself to this point seems to have been a good one, so it makes sense to ride things out and try to parlay 2014 into a secure spot as a starter in 2015 (whether that's in his hometown or elsewhere) -- and the cash that would follow. The tenuous QB situations of teams like the Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets, Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans are worth watching for Cleveland's new darling.

2) Little changes lead to Giant gains: The New York Giants' race to Thanksgiving started Sunday night with an unceremonious blowout loss in Philly. Between now and then, the 3-3 Giants play in Dallas, host the Colts, go to Seattle, then welcome the 49ers and Cowboys to MetLife Stadium. Big Blue's schedule lightens considerably from there. The good news? The Giants are continuing to evolve, in large part thanks to Tom Coughlin's ability to keep his finger on the pulse of the locker room. His regular meetings with the club's leadership council led to music being played at practice on Fridays and breaks in reps for veterans, to keep them fresh for Sundays. Those little things helped the team shake its 0-2 start, and they should serve the group well heading into this week's game-of-the-year-type showdown with the Cowboys. "He gets a lot of criticism for being strict and stern," veteran Mathias Kiwanuka told me. "But you gotta give him credit. He knows how to evaluate a team and figure out how to motivate each group differently. The basics don't change. If you're late, you're late. But we can voice our concerns. He doesn't always give us what we want, but he has made changes. And for us players, you get the sense we're in it together, and you want to play for him."

3) Is Commissioner Roger Goodell's role shifting? The sense among owners and executives coming out of last week's Fall League Meeting was that Commissioner Roger Goodell's job description will be changing, and that it should, given that the position has evolved considerably since Paul Tagliabue handed the reins to his lieutenant eight years ago. We reported on one potential alteration this week: that Goodell could become more of an appeals officer in matters of discipline. And that's the result of strong sentiment in the room at the fall meeting that the commissioner should be part of the disciplinary process -- because the conduct policy applies to all employees, not just players -- but he shouldn't be first in line to punish. "I don't think it makes sense to have him as the first point of contact on personal conduct policy decisions," said one person who was in the room at the fall meeting. "I don't think that means his job has to change. ... I just think decisions would be less scrutinized, they'd be thought of as more independent." As we said earlier in the week, Goodell would likely be replaced by a single czar of discipline or a three-man panel, with the thought being that a former player or players would be most likely to fill the role or roles.

4) A Steelers offense on the verge: Pittsburgh is ranked sixth in total offense and just 23rd in scoring. So it makes sense that this week, the staff emphasized playing a smarter game. And that means playing better situationally -- not just in the red zone, but in what coaches refer to as "the fringe," which covers the area from the opponent's 35-yard line to the opponent's 20. This season, the Steelers have cost themselves at least 35 points on 10 plays that took place in that zone. Among those plays are two touchdowns that came off the board and two touchdowns that were dropped, forcing the team to settle for field goals. Then there were sacks and penalties that took Pittsburgh out of field-goal range. Inside the red zone, there have been more turnovers. Internally, the Steelers believe the young talent on hand is plenty good enough for them to be diverse -- as it stands, coordinator Todd Haley's group ranks 11th in passing offense and fifth in rushing offense. Now it's a matter of tightening things up. The good news is that, despite last Sunday's hysteria-inducing blowout loss to the Browns, the team is still 3-3 and within a game of the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals.

Three checkdowns

1) Does Sunday's explosion mean the Eagles' offense is back? Guard Todd Herremans told me that the early-season challenge for the run game stemmed from Philly facing more base defense against its "11" personnel sets than it did last year. Conversely, on Sunday, the Giants played a lot of nickel -- and paid for it, as Philly rushed for 203 yards. But the aforementioned issue might remain.

2) No one wants to be 0-6, but the Jaguars' rookie class is providing a nice silver lining to the team's rough start. Quarterback Blake Bortles' completion percentage on third down and in the fourth quarter tops 70, center Luke Bowanko and guard Brandon Linder have stabilized the offensive line and receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns rank third and eighth among rookies in catches. The future still looks bright in Jacksonville.

3) The Lions' defense has forever seemed to be longer on ability than production; the past four years, the group has finished 16th, 13th, 23rd and 21st overall in the NFL. Through six weeks this season, though, Detroit ranks first. How have the Lions done it? First-year coordinator Teryl Austin has gotten guys playing fast in a 4-3 variation of the Ravens' scheme. And the play of Darius Slay and Glover Quin has made all the difference in the secondary.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett (at Alabama, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): Garrett was as coveted a recruit as there was in America last year, and the matchup in front of him this week is one scouts will take special interest in going forward. That's because the Aggies star will face his Crimson Tide counterpart and fellow true freshman Cam Robinson for the first time. Robinson might be the most gifted in a long line of gargantuan linemen that Nick Saban has recruited to Tuscaloosa, while Garrett is expected to help transform the A&M defense. Robinson has been plenty good to this point, but Garrett has probably been better, registering 7.5 sacks already -- leaving him a half-sack shy of Jadeveon Clowney's SEC freshman record with five games and a bowl contest still remaining. One AFC college scouting director broke him down like this: "He has excellent size and length (6-foot-4, 250 pounds). Only 18, so he has room to grow, but looks developed. And he's still learning the nuances of the game, developing pass-rush moves. He wins now with skill, size and ability."

2) Oklahoma DT Jordan Phillips (vs. Kansas State, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN): The Sooners' giant in the middle has become the focal point of opponents' blocking schemes -- and he's still wreaking havoc, having turned in another big effort against Texas last week. At 6-6 and 334 pounds, he has the profile to play in any scheme, but his motor on a down-to-down basis is where he'll be most heavily scrutinized. And K-State's multidimensional run game, led by dual-threat quarterback Jake Waters, will challenge him there. "He just needs to play consistent through an entire game; he's one of those guys you see a lot of splash plays from," said one AFC scout. "He's capable of completely dominating. ... With the way he's playing right now, he is a guy." The medical piece of the puzzle will be a big one, too, since Phillips had back surgery last fall. But all the ability is there for a player who has drawn physical comparisons to Albert Haynesworth in scouting circles.

Extra point

Next March is still far off, but there are a number of players (we already mentioned Hoyer) who will be affected both now (in contract negotiations) and then (in terms of their ability to hit free agency unfettered) by what should be rising franchise-tag numbers.

Some players, like Ndamukong Suh and Greg Hardy, carry prohibitively costly tag figures on an individual level, thanks to extenuating circumstances. In Suh's case, it's because of the structure of his rookie deal, which was negotiated under the terms set by the old collective bargaining agreement; for Hardy, it's because he's been tagged once already. But the natural tag numbers are expected to jump, too, giving guys like Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and Justin Houston added leverage.

Without knowing exactly what the salary cap will be in 2015, it's difficult to get a real projection, but if the cap jumps by about $10 million -- as it did for 2014 -- to $143 million, this is what the tag numbers would be, per two sources familiar with how the tag figures are formulated:

Quarterback: $18.51 million
Running back: $10.93 million
Wide receiver: $12.80 million
Tight end: $8.33 million
Offensive lineman: $12.92 million
Defensive tackle: $11.17 million
Defensive end: $14.78 million
Linebacker: $13.17 million
Cornerback: $13.05 million
Safety: $9.60 million
Punter/kicker: $4.12 million

That's a 10 percent hike at every position except for quarterback and receiver, where the numbers are already high. And accordingly, there would be similar jumps with the transition tag numbers under those conditions (again, presuming a $143 million salary cap). And the 2015 transition figures, of course, are the 2016 option numbers for the first 10 players picked in the 2012 NFL Draft. Here are what those would be:

Quarterback: $16.12 million
Running back: $9.02 million
Wide receiver: $10.95 million
Tight end: $7.057 million
Offensive lineman: $11.08 million
Defensive tackle: $9.30 million
Defensive end: $11.94 million
Linebacker: $11.04 million
Cornerback: $11.06 million
Safety: $8.25 million
Punter/kicker: $3.71 million

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Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, of course, would be a no-brainer to keep at $16.12 million, as would Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechley at $11.04 million. The calls on Colts running back Trent Richardson, Jaguars wide receiver Justin Blackmon and Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne would be just as easy going the other way. But how about Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, Vikings offensive lineman Matt Kalil, Buccaneers safety Mark Barron, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill and Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore?

The fact is, the rising tag numbers -- both for premium free agents and the highest of draft picks -- will make decisions more difficult for teams. And that could lead to better players hitting the market down the road.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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