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2015’s Most Important Cardinals, Part 1

“Team is what it takes,” says the banner along the side of the Arizona Cardinals home page. While the Cardinals have 90 players on their current roster, will have 53 men on their regular-season roster, and 45 men active on game days, most of those guys don’t really matter much on the team’s overall performance.

In fact, after deeply reviewing the Cardinals roster and potential 2015 season, it turns out that only 15 people really count toward whether the Cards can meet or exceed their 2014 performance. These six guys matter even less than the seven we’ll get to later this week.

Smokey John

15. John Brown, Wide Receiver. A handful of clutch moments have overshadowed what was an inconsistent-but-promising rookie campaign for Brown. Brown had nearly 700 yards and 5 TDs, but that production came with nearly as many targets (103) as Larry Fitzgerald (104) and more than Michael Floyd (100). Over the season, Brown’s lackluster catch rate (47%) contributed to his replacement-level season (1 DYAR) and inconsistent play-by-play metrics (-12.5% DVOA; 69th among wide receivers in the NFL). The seam-buster has to be relied upon to open up high-percentage passes over the middle and on the edges for whoever is starting under center.

14. Kevin Minter, Inside Linebacker. Search for “Kevin Minter” on Google Images, and the first 24 pictures are from a college career that’s growing increasingly stale. The consensus has solidified that Minter has failed to live up to draft expectations and needs to get better. The slim hope is that with more exposure in his third season and a healthy bicep, he might become the player that the front office was hoping for when we drafted him. Being able to contribute on two downs would be a step forward for Minter in a season where he’s likely on his last chance for the franchise. Being a player who can be physical at the point of attack and help contain the flats would start to pay dividends.

13. Chandler Catanzaro, Kicker. According to Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics, the rookie kicker neither added no value above average performance on field goals and extra points. While Catanzaro added value in the kickoff game, field goal percentages are among the least predictive year-to-year. Catanzaro needs to be even more consistent putting the ball through the uprights to help bail out an offense that will be integrating a number of new pieces.

12. Deone Bucannon, Safety. Solid play in limited exposure boosted the perception of the Cards 2014 first-round pick to a potential stud. Hard to say for sure how the former Cougar projects when Bucannon didn’t play many snaps at his actual position. This year, with a lighter defensive line, Bucannon’s role as a functional eighth man in the box becomes even more important.

11. Dave Zastudil, Punter. Injuries held Zastudil to just two games in 2014, and as a result the Cardinals surrendered 9.6 points in the punting game—in a season when the Cards’ overall point differential was just 11 points. With a healthy Zastudil in 2013, the Cards’ punt unit contributed 3.9 expected points over the season. This is the position where the Cards have the greatest chance to get better the most quickly and dramatically.

10. Troy Niklas, Tight End. The second-year tight end was drafted and drew immediate comparisons to Tony Gonzalez from Bruce Arians and Steve Keim. Safe to say he didn’t live up to that hype. Today, the hope is that Niklas  can become a solid two-way tight end preventing the Cards from immediately tipping run and pass based on personnel groupings.

9. James Bettcher, Defensive Coordinator. When the Cards were evaluating Bettcher as a potential candidate, I thought the idea was preposterous. I still do, but I hope that I’m proven wrong and a coach with almost no experience can succeed based on proximity to some good coaches. If Bettcher fails as a schemer, there isn’t enough dynamic individual talent to bail him out.

8. Tyrann Mathieu, Safety/Cornerback. For as good as this defense was last year (and it was good), it lacked a dynamic playmaker around which the action could and should be funneled. A healthy Honey Badger is such a playmaker, capable of turning a bad play into a good one and changing games. Mathieu needs to go from a guy fans look for to a guy opposing QBs have to identify as soon as they step to the line.

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