Arizona Cardinals, Off-Season Additions and Countering the NFC West Nickel Race

Tyrann Mathieu survived the draft process, now it’s time to give birth to his career.

During the 2012 NFL Regular Season, 17,769 passes were attempted. Exactly 10,822 completions came from those attempts, for 125,820 yards with 756 touchdowns and 468 interceptions. There is no doubt that today’s NFL is a passing league. Teams can establish the run, incorporate the read-option and make all the special teams plays they want, but if you can’t pass the ball on offense or stop the pass on defense, you have no chance of winning in this league.

Winning at the highest level of football is never easy, but winning in the NFC West this season projects to be tougher than winning anywhere else.

The West has last year’s NFC Representative for the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers, who appeared to only get stronger this off-season with plenty of activity in the draft and free agency. The division also appears to have the only team who had a better off-season than the 49ers, the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks have endured a suspension to Bruce Irvin and the carryover of Chris Clemons’ torn ACL from last season this year, but they still figure to have the best defense in the league. At least, on paper. Somewhat overshadowed by those two heavy-hitters are the St. Louis Rams. The Rams have quietly put together a very talented roster over the past two years and ruled the NFC West last year in terms of inter-division games. Throw in Tavon Austin, Alec Ogletree, Jake Long, Jared Cook and the continued development of their youngsters, and a playoff spot wouldn’t surprise anyone in Missouri.

If the Rams are being overshadowed by their divisional rivals, the Cardinals are buried under the weight of their hype.

With as much noise as a mime in space, the Cardinals have quietly made some astute additions this off-season. It started off slow, with some key defensive pieces from last year departing, but any drop-off on defense will be countered by some very important offensive additions. Quarterback Carson Palmer is the headline act. Palmer was acquired from the Oakland Raiders for a late draft pick. He has a bad reputation these days, but Palmer was once an excellent quarterback and has mostly played on very poor offenses since then. Although his statistical prowess from last year is cast aside because of the Raiders’ record, IE more garbage time, it must also be considered that he was working with very few legitimate receiving options, next to no consistency in the running game and a very leaky offensive line.

At the very least, Palmer gives the Cardinals a quarterback who has proven himself at this level. Last year’s combination of Kevin Kolb and John Skelton had never done that during their short spells on the field. Not to forget Ryan Lindley who started as a rookie.

Palmer will have the benefit of an improved offensive line blocking for him. At least, improved on paper. Bobby Massie is no longer a rookie, Jonathan Cooper is, but expectations are sky-high for him. Earl Watford is slated to start across from him, to give them two rookie guards upfront, while Levi Brown will be looking to revitalize his career under the guidance of Bruce Arians’ coaching staff. A convoy of rookie additions will at least allow them to commit to running the ball without having to rely on the durability of Ryan Williams.

Yet, for all the offensive additions, those defensive moves left some holes on the other side of the ball that needed filling.

Todd Bowles came in to replace Ray Horton as the defensive coordinator and he is expected to drastically alter the approach, scheme and philosophy of the unit. The talk of moving to a 4-3 front is enticing, while replacing William Gay with Antoine Cason can’t be a downgrade at the very least. Lorenzo Alexander and/or Alex Okafor could give Sam Acho a legitimate edge-rusher to share sacks with and Yeremiah Bell arrives in Arizona with a proven track record.

None of those moves are really interesting in comparison to what the Cardinals have done to counter the moves made by their division rivals this off-season. Each of the 49ers, Rams and Seahawks dramatically upgraded their slot receiver positions this off-season with key additions in the draft and free agency.

Even though Michael Crabtree is going to miss much of the season because of a torn Achilles, Anquan Boldin won’t be forced to stay outside in the 49ers’ offense. Crabtree could be replaced by Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams or Quinton Patton, while Vernon Davis, AJ Jenkins and Boldin all offer the 49ers’ different skill-sets as slot receivers.

If Jenkins develops into what the 49ers thought they were getting when they selected him in the first round last year, they will have a dynamic receiving option who can loose defensive backs in the open-field or create space with his agility. A fully effective Jenkins on a linebacker or even a safety could spell disaster for the Cardinals on every single play. In comparison to Anquan Boldin, Jenkins is a nightmare to prepare for.

Much like teams used to balance speed and big backs when they were running the ball, the 49ers have a physical, intimidating presence who can play slot receiver and a quick, agile option to stretch the field horizontally. This tests the quality and versatility of the defense’s personnel groupings on every snap.

Of course, if Boldin and Jenkins fail to hurt the defense underneath, then Vernon Davis can move into the slot to test the explosion of whoever tries to defend the physical freak who is labelled as a tight end. Davis can do everything, but at least without Crabtree on the field, it will be easier for the defense to take him out of his comfort zone with different coverage looks and double teams.

While the Seahawks don’t have that versatility in their slot options, they do have depth and an abundance of talent. Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate were doing a better than average job before this off-season, but that didn’t stop Pete Carroll and John Schneider from pulling the trigger on acquiring Percy Harvin from then Minnesota Vikings. When fully healthy last year, Harvin was a consideration for MVP. On an offense with Adrian Peterson, it was a legitimate argument as to who was tougher to defend.

Harvin isn’t just a slot receiver, despite his perception from certain sections of the media. He is a chess piece who can move all around the field and do a myriad of things with or without the football. Defending him is never easy, even if you have a superstar nickelback to contain him with. Harvin requires a special gameplan, because he is not just the one style of player. he can beat you with his speed, quickness, strength or route-running.

The Rams think they’ve found the next Harvin, at least, they’d better hope they have after trading up to the eighth spot in the draft to take Tavon Austin. Austin was considered undersized by some, but that is the direction of today’s NFL. The slot receiver position is as important as it has ever been. Austin could potentially play it better than anyone ever has with his combination of speed, agility and elusiveness. Austin wasn’t the only addition the Rams made to the slot however, tight end Jared Cook is essentially an oversized receiver who can play inside or outside, while Stedman Bailey is following Austin from West Virginia to St. Louis.

In six games this year, the Cardinals are projected to face a selection of Anquan Boldin, AJ Jenkins, Vernon Davis, Percy Harvin, Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook and Stedman Bailey at the slot receiver position. Considering they lost both Adrian Wilson and William Gay this off-season, two players who have reputations for covering slot receivers of different styles, they have managed the off-season very well to counter the impact of the NFC West arms race.

Daryl Washington’s four game suspension will hurt. He is too good of a player and one of the most athletic inside linebackers in the NFL. Replacing Washington isn’t simple, but the Cardinals at the very least came across a familiar player who could be affective dealing with the big bodies of Jared Cook, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. Karlos Dansby may be the wrong side of 30, but he showed that he could still play to a relatively high level last year with the Miami Dolphins.

It was somewhat of a surprise that Dansby was released, even after the addition of Dannell Ellerbe, so the Cardinals can count themselves fortunate that he decided to return to the desert.

Whatever combination of Dansby, Kevin Minter and Jasper Brinkley wins out for the first our games of the season will be just trying to hold the fort down for Washington’s return. Once Washington returns, the Cardinals will have two hard-hitting big bodied linebackers who can run all over the field. Whatever impact Boldin, Cook and Davis expect to have over the middle bullying defensive backs will be hindered by their presence.

For all of Dansby and Washington’s projections against tight ends and oversized receivers, matching them up with Austin, Harvin, Bailey, Tate, Baldwin or Jenkins would be asking for trouble. Smaller, quicker receivers with game-breaking talent can have major advantages over the better nickel cornerbacks in the NFL because of the two-way go that comes with playing on the inside, therefore they’d have their way against any linebackers.

The Cardinals’ linebackers shouldn’t fear that scenario however, because they won’t see it very often.

Tyrann Mathieu wasn’t considered a top prospect coming out of the NFL draft even before his suspension in college, but even over the last two seasons, the importance of the slot receiver has been magnified, so his size has become less of an issue. Mathieu was considered too small to be a starting cornerback, which he technically is on the outside, but as a starting free safety, he could prove to be the perfect counter against the faster slot receivers of the NFC West.

Mathieu can drop into the nickel cornerback position without the Cardinals being forced to alter their personnel packages. This means a team like the 49ers won’t be able to knock them off balance by using a pass formation to run from. He will be under pressure to prove he can tackle the bigger backs in the division, such as Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore, but that will be an issue no matter where he lines up.

When the Cardinals want to drop into a nickel packages and keep Mathieu at free safety, or play two nickel backs, they have the personnel to do that also after an off-season trade for Javier Arenas.

During his three year spell with the Kansas City Chiefs, Arenas made a bigger name for himself on special teams than as a cornerback. He never really got an opportunity outside during his first two seasons, before failing to make the position his own in his third season. Arenas did show flashes though and appears to project perfectly into the nickelback role that the Cardinals should ask him to fill.

Arenas and Mathieu are the scat backs to Washington and Dansby’s power-running. Sticking with the nickeback by committee analogy. Of course, Mathieu may fail to live up to his promise on the field or see his past off-field issues return, while Arenas is no certainty to even make the roster, but off-season moves are made on the potential good they can bring to the franchise, not the fear of the bad.

The Cardinals obviously see the potential in their nickel investments. Everyone can see the importance.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

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