We’ve made it, folks.
After trudging through an interesting preseason, the regular season is here.
Now, everything counts.
And just when it looked like the Arizona Cardinals had their roster locked and loaded for their Week 1 matchup against the Tennessee Titans, a surprise retirement from a starting defender and an injured reserve stint for another have complicated things a bit.
A look at the five biggest questions surrounding the Cardinals as their season opener closes in.
How will the Cardinals make up for the absence of Malcolm Butler?
The Cardinals’ four-day mandatory break got a whole lot busier following starting cornerback Malcolm Butler’s surprise retirement Tuesday.
After general manager Steve Keim went to work rebuilding the cornerbacks room this offseason, highlighted by the free-agent signing of Butler, concerns regarding the position swirl once again.
Losing a starter is never easy, especially with just more than a week out from the Cardinals’ regular season opener against the Titans.
As it stands, the Cardinals’ 53-man roster features five cornerbacks in Byron Murphy, Robert Alford, Marco Wilson, Tay Gowan and Luq Barcoo.
Arizona also went out and added cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Antonio Hamilton to the practice squad Wednesday. Douglas has extensive experience and could be called up to the roster for gameday.
As far as how head coach Kliff Kingsbury sees it, he has three corners who can start for Arizona on the outside.
Murphy, while used mostly inside, is capable of moving out wide if needed. The Cardinals continue to see steady growth from the third-year corner and view his versatility as something they can utilize even moreso this season with the roster shakeup Butler’s retirement caused.
Wilson was thrown into starting reps during training camp and clearly seized the opportunity. Coaches and players alike have raved about the rookie. He’ll be indoctrinated into the league with a heavy dose of A.J. Brown and Julio Jones in Week 1. Will his successes make up for his rookie errors?
Alford saw success during his time with the Atlanta Falcons, nabbing 10 picks and 85 passes defensed in six seasons. Alford’s biggest question is whether or not he can stay healthy after missing the previous two seasons due to injuries suffered in training camp.
How do the Cardinals navigate DL Jordan Phillips’ stint on the IR?
On top of Butler’s self-removal from the team, the Cardinals were hit with another blow to their starting defense in the form of defensive tackle Jordan Phillips being placed on the injured reserve with an undisclosed injury Thursday.
Since signing a three-year, $30 million deal last offseason, Phillips’ time in Arizona has been a bit of a disappointment with just nine games played and three stints on the IR. He’s registered two sacks and 11 tackles.
With Phillips now on the shelf for at least the first three weeks of the season — he is able to return Sept. 23 — Arizona is left with a bit of patchwork along the defensive line.
Phillips missed most of training camp due to an undisclosed injury and a stint on the COVID-19 list, allowing backup defensive tackle Leki Fotu the chance to slide in with the first-team defense.
Fotu has had a busy offseason, taking a few days off from the season finale before getting after it alongside fellow defensive linemen Zach Allen, Rashard Lawrence and Michael Dogbe.
The second-year lineman out of Utah has seen the game slow down much more this offseason after recording a sack, 11 tackles and three QB hits his rookie season (11 games).
Does A.J. Green’s and Rondale Moore’s strong offseason translate over to the regular season?
Cardinals wide receivers A.J. Green and Rondale Moore were two of the highlights from training camp this offseason.
Green looked more than capable of being another big time weapon for quarterback Kyler Murray. He feels this offense is tailored to his strengths as a receiver, something missing from his final few seasons in Cincinnati.
K1 to A.J. Green.
It’s early, but they seem to be gelling. pic.twitter.com/bMWEkLUWuu
— Tyler Drake (@Tdrake4sports) July 31, 2021
“Just being around him and watching him, I think he’s primed for a big season just based on he’s one of the more talented receivers in the league,” Kingsbury said back in July.
A revival is needed for Green after injuries, poor quarterback play and misuse plagued his final few seasons with the Bengals, leaving some to wonder how much the wide receiver has left in the tank. Especially after posting career lows in receiving yards (523) and touchdowns (2) over 16 games in 2020.
Moore provided a big play on the regular as he quickly made a name for himself in the desert.
He followed it up over the team’s two preseason games, recording 10 total touches for 74 yards.
There goes that rookie (Rondale Moore) again. pic.twitter.com/thOA9CYZAX
— Tyler Drake (@Tdrake4sports) August 2, 2021
But with Christian Kirk primed to see most of the starting reps out of the slot, Moore’s usage in certain packages and in the return game will be something to keep an eye on in Week 1.
Just how ready are the young inside linebackers?
A lot of the focus this offseason has been on the linebacker duo of rookie Zaven Collins and second-year pro Isaiah Simmons.
Pegged as the team’s starting inside linebackers shortly after the NFL Draft, the pair have had their work cut out for them from the start of OTAs. The pressure was even higher for Collins, who takes over for two-year captain Jordan Hicks at the MIKE position.
In their first taste of preseason action in their new roles, Collins and Simmons appeared comfortable, with the former recording a tackle for loss on the first rushing attempt of the evening. The following exhibition, they combined for eight tackles over a first-half workload.
All signs point to linebackers, the team’s last two first-round picks, grasping their new assignments, with coaches and players alike talking about their improved play as training camp wore on.
They’ll have one more week of practice before their work gets put to the test against a potent Titans rushing attack led by back-to-back NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry.
Who comes out victorious from the starting right guard battle?
The offensive line is nearly solidified as we head into the final week of preparation.
Still, the question remains as to which of the trio of Josh Jones, Brian Winters and Justin Murray will line up at right guard in Tennessee.
Jones, a third-round pick in 2020, ran with the first-team offense throughout most of training camp, with injuries sidelining both Winters and Murray for an extended period of time.
The second-year pro out of Houston took the opportunity and ran with it, growing more and more trust with the starting offense.
“I’ve been very pleased with him, he’s made a lot of progress not only on the field but off the field,” run game coordinator and offensive line coach Sean Kugler said in early August. “He’s really made a good leap from Year 1 to year 2.”
Winters and Murray managed to make a return near the end of camp, heightening the competition as the team gets down to the final days of practice before the Titans game.
Winters was brought in as another physical presence to the line, while Murray has been a versatile in-house option the team trusts.
We’ll get our answer on who seized the role soon enough.