I've spent the past few weeks visiting training camps around the league, and one team has stuck out as having the best chance to surprise some folks: the Arizona Cardinals.
While the Cardinals are known to have some talent, they're also fresh off a campaign in which they lost 11 of their last 12 games. Many will ultimately dismiss them as also-rans in what promises to be a highly competitive NFC West.
I wouldn't be so quick to do so, however, as the Cardinals of 2013 bear a striking resemblance to another NFC West squad that showed promise before last season: the St. Louis Rams.
In August 2012, the Rams were coming off a 2-14 campaign, and expectations were low. But I got the firm sense that they were primed for a turnaround. They had a new coach in Jeff Fisher and an injection of fresh talent, and I was high on them. They went on to finish with a record of 7-8-1 -- and an intra-divisional mark of 4-1-1, best in the NFC West.
The Cardinals are in a similar situation. I don't think they'll be able to stand above the San Francisco 49ers or Seattle Seahawks, but I definitely think they'll be a factor and help determine who does emerge on top. Here are seven reasons why they can't be ignored:
1) Bruce Arians
New head coach Bruce Arians is really the right guy at the right time for this team. He's a no-nonsense players' coach -- he has a great relationship with his troops, but if anyone tries to take advantage of that, he lowers the boom. He's been successful nearly everywhere he's gone, including Indianapolis, where he helped the Colts make last season's playoffs as the interim head coach while Chuck Pagano was fighting leukemia.
I don't know exactly what happened with the Cardinals last year, but one thing we do know is that they had terrible quarterback play, probably the worst in the league. Arians has a history of helping quarterbacks excel. He guided Andrew Luck to a great rookie campaign in Indy, and he did an awesome job with the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger when he was Big Ben's offensive coordinator. Arians is kind of a special guy.
2) Carson Palmer
This Cardinals offense is made for Carson Palmer; he likes to throw intermediate and long passes, and that's what this offense will allow him to do. He looked much better in training camp this year than he did last season with the Oakland Raiders -- and he had a fairly good campaign in 2012, throwing for 4,018 yards and 22 touchdowns.
I thought Palmer looked good when throwing to Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Second-year wideout Michael Floyd, meanwhile, has lost weight, while Andre Roberts is coming off a season in which he caught 64 passes. In the Cardinals' preseason opener against the Green Bay Packers last weekend, Palmer completed four of his six pass attempts for 77 yards and a touchdown (a 38-yard shot to Roberts). In short, Arizona's passing attack should be much better than it was in 2012.
3) Improvements on the offensive line
The Cardinals gave up the most sacks in the NFL last season (58), so obviously the offensive line was a major area of concern. But I'm really impressed with what the team has done here.
First of all, top draft pick Jonathan Cooper -- who was thought by many to be as good as any of the offensive linemen available in April's draft -- can play center or guard; that versatility will be key. Second, Levi Brown, who missed all of last season, will be back. And I thought free-agent addition Eric Winston was a good pick-up; he's still under 30, and he's been a starter for the past six seasons.
Then there's second-year tackle Bobby Massie. At times last season, he looked like a revolving door on the line, especially early, but he's really improved a lot since then. You could see it toward the end of the year; he's one of those big guys with long arms who has a chance to be pretty good.
Finally, their new assistant coach, Larry Zierlein, is one of the better offensive line coaches around. He's really a technician, and I think he'll help that unit a lot.
4) Strong overall coaching staff
Zierlein isn't the only assistant who promises to have a major impact. There's Tom Moore, who was extremely effective in Indianapolis with Peyton Manning, and receivers coach Darryl Drake; both are top notch. Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin looks like a future NFL head coach; I was really impressed by him. New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, meanwhile, is highly thought of, though of course he'll have his hands full incorporating what looks to be a significant number of new players.
5) Patrick Peterson
This guy is the real deal. Entering his third season, Peterson, who had seven picks in 2012, might be as good as any cornerback in the NFL. Against the Packers last Friday, Peterson picked up right where he left off last year, snaring an interception in the first quarter and returning it 27 yards.
And it looks like he's going to influence the secondary with more than just his play; rookie Tyrann Mathieu has impressed -- he had a terrific game against Green Bay -- and I think it's at least partially because Peterson has taken his fellow LSU product under his wing.
6) A goosed-up ground attack
With Rashard Mendenhall, Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington aboard, the Cardinals should have a much-improved ground attack after ranking dead last in 2012.
The rookies especially hold some promise. Taylor, who ended up being the team's leading rusher against the Packers last week, is one of those guys who is a "hit up in there" type of player. He's not going to make long runs, but he'll gash opposing defenses for 5 or 6 yards when you need a first down. Ellington is a specialist, a third-down back who isn't big enough to carry the ball a ton, but who adds a lot of versatility.
7) "Home field" will mean something
Cardinals fans have really taken to this team -- 15,000 folks came out when I was there. University of Phoenix Stadium will be a very tough venue to play in, which will definitely come in handy during a three-game, midseason homestand against some of the better squads in the NFL in the Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans.
Of course, you never know who's going to get hurt or how things are going to change as the season progresses, but I walked out of Cardinals camp with the same feeling I had after being in St. Louis last year: that the team I'd just seen is going to be pretty good. Just look at how they opened the preseason -- while their 17-0 victory doesn't count for too much, shutting out the Green Bay Packers is never a bad sign. Even though the Cardinals are playing in a very tough division, I think they can win about eight games and definitely have a hand in shaping the narrative of the NFC West.