NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

TEMPE, Ariz. – As the 2014 season showed, the Arizona Cardinals' backups are as important as their starters.

On Thursday, the Cardinals committed to keeping one of those backups on their roster at one of their most important positions.

The Cardinals re-signed backup offensive tackle Bradley Sowell on Thursday to a one-year deal. Sowell, a swing tackle, didn’t play an offensive snap in 2014 a year after starting the final 12 games at left tackle. He played 60 special-teams snaps in all 16 games in 2014, however.

Sowell was claimed off waivers by the Cardinals on Sept. 1, 2013 after playing in 10 games in 2012 with Indianapolis, when Bruce Arians was the Colts’ offensive coordinator and interim head coach. He went undrafted in 2012 out of the University of Mississippi, signing with Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent.

Sowell is the first of Arizona's 2014 restricted free agents to re-sign with the team. The Cardinals have until March 10 to make qualifying offers to quarterback Ryan Lindley and defensive lineman Alameda Ta'amu.

The Cardinals also signed cornerback Damond Smith, who spent last preseason with the Kansas City Chiefs. He was on the practice squad of the B.C. Lions of the CFL in 2013. He went undrafted in the 2013 supplemental draft out of South Alabama. Smith began his college career at Western Michigan, then transferred to South Alabama after two seasons.
TEMPE, Ariz. – It’s been no secret that one of the Arizona Cardinals needs this year is an outside linebacker who can rush the passer off the edge.

In his third mock draft of the offseason, ESPN NFL Draft Insider Todd McShay has stayed true to that, predicting the Cardinals would draft an OLB in all three of his installments. McShay’s most recent selection for the Cardinals at 24th has the size, speed and natural ability to make an immediate impact.

However, Arizona choosing Virginia’s Eli Harold might be a reach in the first round.

Harold is 6-foot-3 and 237 pounds and runs the 40-yard-dash in 4.6 seconds. He had an impressive combine and put up impressive numbers in the 40, 10-yard split (1.56 seconds) and the short shuttle (4.16 seconds). McShay said those are the three drills most indicative of success for pass rushers.

According to scouting reports, he has good range and can chase down runners on a straight line. Harold’s hands have also been impressive.

But one area where he struggles, according to those reports, is the same area that repeatedly hampered Arizona last season. According to an ESPN scouting report, Harold has trouble staying on carriers and is considered an “inconsistent” tackler.

In McShay’s most recent scenario, Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon was drafted three picks later. If Arizona’s need for a running back isn’t sufficiently filled in free agency, Gordon would be the better pick in this case.
TEMPE, Ariz. – The Arizona Cardinals' offseason to-do list has been quickly getting shorter by the week.

Next up is lowering Darnell Dockett's $9.8 million cap hit in 2015 either by giving him a new contract, restructuring his current deal or releasing the 11-year veteran.

With Larry Fitzgerald's new deal completed, and Cardinals general manager Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians receiving new contracts Monday, Arizona is now focused on Dockett.

“We’ve had a lot of dialogue with Drew Rosenhaus, his representative, and hopefully we’ll come to a happy agreement on both sides,” Keim said Tuesday.

Dockett is entering the final year of his contract and is scheduled to earn $6.8 million next season. His cap hit is the fifth largest on the roster behind Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell, Carson Palmer and Fitzgerald.

Cardinals president Michael Bidwill said Tuesday morning on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM that he wants Dockett to retire as a Cardinal.

“We love Darnell,” he said. “We drafted him. We drafted him in the same class as Fitz. I’d love to have him retires as a Cardinal. I think that’s what he needs to do, is stay in a Cardinal uniform. We’re looking forward to working with him to restructure his deal. It will free up some cap space so we can be out there being aggressive and being a team and getting a ring on his finger.”

Dockett will turn 34 in May and is coming off ACL surgery that forced him to miss the entire 2014 season.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Before Steve Keim was promoted to general manager in 2013, the Arizona Cardinals trusted simple scouting and number crunching to determine who to pay and what to pay them.

That’s changed under Keim.

In an excellent and impressive project by ESPN The Magazine, the use of analytics was analyzed (coincidence? I think not) across the four major sports. In the NFL category, the Cardinals were among 12 teams in the “skeptics” category.

The Magazine said the Cardinals were in the “analytics dark ages” before Keim was named general manager. He didn’t do a total overhaul of how Arizona evaluated players, but he incorporated analytics into his tried-and-true scouting techniques.

But the real reason for Arizona’s ascent into the world of analytics was Mike Disner, the Cardinals' director of football administration. In laymen’s terms, he’s the Cards’ cap guy. When he was hired in 2013, he incorporated statistical data and projections -- metrics most teams, but not the Cardinals -- were already using.

The project was broken up into five categories in each sport: All-in, Believers, One Foot In, Skeptics and Nonbelievers. The NFL was the only league among the four to not have any teams who are All-in.

Using analytics clearly works. Both Super Bowl teams are among the half of the league that have at least “one foot in.” The Patriots were believers and the Seahawks had one foot in.
TEMPE, Ariz. – It was a matter of when, not if.

Monday’s announcement by the Arizona Cardinals that coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim were given new four-year contracts wasn’t a surprise. And not just because team president Michael Bidwill has said over the last two months he wanted to keep them in Arizona.

After two seasons together, Arians and Keim produced 21 wins and the team’s first playoff berth since 2009. They’ve turned around the culture of a franchise that had just three winning seasons in the 28 years before both assumed their current positions.

Arizona could’ve won more games and gone farther in the playoffs had injuries not curtailed any momentum last season. Arians and Keim had to navigate 21 players missing a combined 109 games. Yet, they were able to keep the Cardinals winning because both stayed true to their roles.

Keim has become a master at churning through the bottom of the roster, using the waiver wire as his own free-agent orchard. Over the last two seasons, Keim has made 410 roster moves. Of the 53 players on Arizona’s final roster of 2014, he was responsible for acquiring 40 of them, and among those 40, 13 were draft picks from the last two years.

Arians has been able to take those new faces -- sometimes they’re so new that he gets them on Tuesday and plays them on Sunday -- and win. And winning is the best elixir in football.

They deserved new deals because they’ve made the Cardinals a perennial contender by accomplishing a rare feat among GMs and head coaches: harmony.

“The reason why Bruce and I work so well together is clearly defined roles and stay in you lane,” Keim told SiriusXM NFL Radio last week at the NFL combine. “Coach coaches them up. I bring the players in. We have such a great deal of respect for each other.”

While Keim is responsible for finding the talent -- such as wide receiver John Brown -- and taking risks -- such as safety Tyrann Mathieu or quarterback Carson Palmer -- it’s Arians whose scheme is working. He was known as an offensive genius from his work in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, and when he got to Arizona the Cardinals took time picking up his offense.

But with the right players in 2014, Arians built off a 10-win season in 2013 and led the Cardinals to 11 wins and the playoffs.

Keeping Arians and Keim together was another right move by Bidwill, who showed the rest of the franchise his commitment to winning. This run Arizona is on isn’t just a short-term ride.

Bidwill showed he’s in it for the long haul. And the future includes Arians and Keim.
TEMPE, Ariz. – Daryl Washington’s reinstatement status received a lot of attention this week at the NFL combine.

But the message from the Arizona Cardinals was unwavering: It’s out of their hands.

Washington, the former Pro Bowl linebacker, is still serving a suspension for at least a year for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. According to the NFL’s substance abuse policy, Washington can apply for reinstatement “no sooner than 60 days before the one-year anniversary date of the letter banishing him,” which would be in early March.

Washington then will be examined by the league’s medical director and medical adviser within 45 days of the NFL receiving his application. Part of the procedure after Washington submits his application for reinstatement will include urine drug tests and a meeting with the NFL, which may include Goodell.

The goal will be for Washington to complete all the steps for reinstatement so Goodell can make a decision within 60 days after receiving Washington’s application.

Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told SiriusXM NFL Radio that the earliest he believes Washington could be reinstated will be June.

Until then, however, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians isn’t spending much time thinking about Washington.

“When we get reinstated then I’ll start counting on him,” Arians said. “I don’t even think about him. He’s not a member of our team until he gets reinstated.”

Washington’s agent, Jordan Woy, did not respond to e-mail requests for comment from ESPN.

An NFL spokesman declined comment on Washington’s reinstatement process.

Washington was suspended the first four games of 2013 for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. His 2014 suspension was handed down on May 30. After his current suspension is resolved, Washington may face another punishment for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy resulting from an arrest in May 2013 on charges of assaulting an ex-girlfriend. Washington pleaded guilty in March 2014 and received a year of supervised probation a month later.

Under the NFL’s new personal conduct policy, Washington could face a minimum six-game suspension for his aggravated assault charges.

Keim stressed that Washington’s immediate future will be controlled by the NFL.

But Keim hinted that the Cardinals would welcome Washington back once his off-field issues have been resolved.

“It’s hard to replace a dynamic playmaker like that, as you guys know,” Keim said. “There’s not many guys who can run and cover like he can.

“But at the end of the day, the most important thing is he’s got to get his life straight, and I hope he has taken this time to reflect and maybe change some things.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- With Larry Fitzgerald's new contract out of the way, the focus now shifts to what kind of 2015 he’ll have after coming off his worst statistical season since his rookie year.

But how well Fitzgerald plays next season will in part depend on how well he can avoid injuries.

“The big thing for Larry is we've got to keep him healthy,” Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said at the NFL combine Thursday.

Larry Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald was hampered by nagging injuries the past two seasons. In 2013, it was his hamstring. In 2014, it was his MCL, which was aggravated in the preseason against Cincinnati and again in Week 11 against Detroit.

Fitzgerald returned in Week 14 and collected 157 yards but no touchdowns over the final four regular-season games and the wild-card loss to Carolina.

“He’s a warrior so he’s going to continue playing through the injury,” Arians said. “If we can keep him healthy, he should have a big-time year.”

Fitzgerald reached the 1,000-yard mark since 2011, but had 954 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013.

Last year’s injuries were a major blow, Arians said, because he was playing at a “very high level” before getting hurt.

“He was as healthy and as fast as I’ve seen him this year in training camp,” Arians said on SiriusXM NFL Radio from the combine Thursday. “We got to keep him healthy this year and he can put the numbers up that we all hope he can.”

Fitzgerald’s role has evolved since Arians was hired in 2013. He’s blocking more -- as well as former Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward, Arians said -- and isn’t used as a deep threat. During Fitzgerald’s exit interview, Arians and he discussed Fitzgerald’s 2014 and what they expect from him this year.

“He plays wide receiver and we’re going to throw him the damn ball,” Arians said.

A healthy Fitzgerald can be a productive Fitzgerald. He’s only missed five games in his career, two coming last season.

With a freshly agreed-upon contract worth a reported $11 million guaranteed per season for the next two years, the expectations will again be placed on Fitzgerald’s shoulders. Arians is quite happy he'll be able to do that this season.

He’ll be even happier if the face of the Cardinals could stay healthy in 2015.

“He’s more than the face of the franchise,” Arians said. “He’s really the heartbeat of the organization because he’s put so much into it. You never want to see him in another colored jersey.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Forget Larry Fitzgerald for a moment, this week has been full of Carson Palmer updates.

And Thursday brought another one from the NFL combine in Indianapolis, this time from Cardinals coach Bruce Arians.

Palmer is “at least three to four weeks” ahead of schedule, Arians said.

“He’s doing extremely well,” Arians said. “He’s working his tail off.

“He keeps talking about minicamp, being ready to go, and we’ll see how he progresses (to determine) whether or not we allow him to do anything this spring.”

After speaking to the media at the podium Thursday, Arians said on SiriusXM NFL Radio that the Cardinals would be “guarding” Palmer “real close” during organized team activities (OTAs). Thursday marked three months and 10 days since the Arizona Cardinals quarterback tore his left ACL against the St. Louis Rams in Week 10.

“He wants to get out there for that,” Arians said.

“I think minicamp at the end of OTAs is a better shooting point for him.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- By agreeing to a new contract with the Arizona Cardinals, which was announced Wednesday, Larry Fitzgerald not only secured his future with the franchise for at least two more seasons, he helped free up some much needed salary cap space.

But Arizona could get more cap room if defensive tackle Darnell Dockett restructures, renegotiates or agrees to an entirely new deal -- if the Cardinals even decide to keep him for 2015.

[+] EnlargeDarnell Dockett
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsArizona could get more cap room if defensive tackle Darnell Dockett either restructures, renegotiates or agrees to an entirely new deal.
Like Fitzgerald, the Cardinals' veteran defensive tackle has played all 11 seasons for one team, but he's carrying a cap hit of $9.8 million, a number too high for a 33-year-old who missed last season because of ACL surgery.

"We'd love to have Darnell back," general manager Steve Keim said at the NFL combine on Wednesday. "That's one of those things -- I'm not going to get into specific players because we could go down the list -- but Darnell is a guy that we really missed him this year because he was the heart and soul of our defense. He's obviously an energetic player.

"He's been a really good leader the past couple years, but we'll have some conversations with Darnell moving forward."

Releasing Dockett would save the Cardinals $6.8 million on their cap, money they are in need of.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Arizona is currently $15.2 million over an estimated cap of $140 million. On Thursday, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported that the 2015 cap will be somewhere between $140 million and $143 million.

Reports surfaced Wednesday that Fitzgerald's new deal would open about $13 million in cap space for the Cardinals, meaning they will be about $2.2 million over a $140 million salary cap.

To free up more space and make them active players in free agency, which begins March 10, Arizona could get help from Dockett or potentially release wide receiver Ted Ginn ($4 million cap savings), center Lyle Sendlein ($4.275 million) or guard Ted Larsen ($2.435 million), all veterans with cap numbers that could be replaced with younger, cheaper options.

Fitzgerald's deal helps the Cardinals, but it isn't enough. Dockett either has to step up and rework his contract or somebody, possibly even him, may end up a free agent next month.

"There's some additional tough decisions that we are going to have to make," Keim said. "But it does give us the room, at least from our projections that we will be able to be pretty active in free agency and address some of those needs that we have talked about -- trying to get more athletic on defense, particularly at both inside and outside linebacker spots, trying to get a little more aggressive and more physical inside on the interior of our offensive line.

"Really, at the end of the day, I think (Cardinals) coach (Bruce) Arians said it best: When the season was over and we were able to take all the players off our IR board and put them back on our depth chart, we had a pretty good football team. We just finished the season with no bullets left in the gun."

Keim and the Cardinals are getting closer to reloading.
While his combine news conference was dominated by Larry Fitzgerald's new two-year contract, Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said the man throwing to Fitzgerald may be back sooner than expected.

Keim said at the combine in Indianapolis on Wednesday that quarterback Carson Palmer could return from ACL surgery as soon as this spring.

“We anticipate that not only is Carson ahead of schedule, we think there’s a good chance he could potentially be ready for OTAs even,” Keim said.

Palmer expressed a similar sentiment to ESPN NFL Insider Ed Werder on Tuesday, saying he’ll “definitely” be prepared for training camp. But that won’t keep Keim and Cardinals coach Bruce Arians from evaluating this year’s crop of 15 quarterbacks.

Outside of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, who are widely projected to go first and second, in any order, in this year’s draft, the quarterback crop isn’t as deep as in past years.

“We’re always going to evaluate quarterbacks in the draft,” Keim said. “That is a position that we have talked over and over about -- supply and demand. When you get your starting quarterback injured, and then you go through your second quarterback … we have talked a lot about there’s not 32 good ones, let alone to go to 64 to play with your backup, to play with your third-string quarterback.

“So, it was a unique situation this year.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Cardinals have made a lot of good decisions in the past few years.

Arizona, led by team president Michael Bidwill, has been making the right calls since it fired coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves after the 2012 season. At that point, the locker room and many games were lost.

[+] EnlargeLarry Fitzgerald
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsIn 11 seasons, all with Arizona, Larry Fitzgerald has 909 receptions for 12,151 yards and 89 TDs.
Then came a series of decisions that have framed the Cardinals' present and that will alter their future: promoting Steve Keim to general manager, hiring coach Bruce Arians and trading for quarterback Carson Palmer.

The decision Wednesday to re-sign star receiver Larry Fitzgerald is yet another in the long line of wise moves. It will leave its imprint on the Cardinals for years to come. Fitzgerald had been due an $8 million roster bonus in mid-March, which would bring his 2015 compensation to $16.25 million. His cap hit would have been $23.6 million.

Instead, the Cardinals gave Fitzgerald a new deal, re-signing him for two years and likely letting him finish his career with the team. Fitzgerald will receive $22 million in guaranteed money over the course of the new contract, according to ESPN sources and multiple reports.

It's the right move for a long line of good reasons.

First, as has been well-documented, is Fitzgerald's ability on the field. One reason his numbers declined last season -- the eight-time Pro Bowler had 784 receiving yards and a career-low two touchdowns in 2014 -- was his role in Arians' offense. Fitzgerald blocked more and was the Cardinals' second-most targeted receiver on third downs in 2014, even though he caught more passes on third down than any of his teammates.

But he still has it.

Fitzgerald took a 4-yard pass over the middle 80 yards for a touchdown in Week 8 against the Eagles. He may not be as quick, but he is just as reliable. He had a drop percentage of 1 this past season.

Second: Sure, his 2014 numbers were his lowest since his 2004 rookie season, but Fitzgerald was one of the most valuable players on the field. Case in point: Michael Floyd, who was expected to replace Fitzgerald as the Cardinals' No. 1 receiver in 2014, had 37 receptions for 628 yards and six touchdowns when Fitzgerald was also on the field. But Floyd caught only six passes for 155 yards without a touchdown with Fitzgerald on the sideline.

Having Fitzgerald on the field instantly makes defenses wary. If they ease off Fitzgerald, he can make them pay. If they double or bracket him, another receiver is open. Even though he's a surefire Hall of Famer, he's still used as a decoy. And it works.

Third, losing Fitzgerald to free agency and another team would have been a major blow for the perception of the franchise. As a state, Arizona is already full of transient fan bases, so winning the battle to convert them into Cardinals fans hasn't been easy -- especially before Arizona's run to the Super Bowl in 2008. But a constant during the past decade has been Fitzgerald. Take him away, and the Cardinals would lose the face of their franchise, their heart, their soul.

And they'd lose some of their fan base. A franchise that still hasn't entrenched itself as an annual contender can't afford to let the one man people pay to see, whose jersey most fans wear, just walk away.

That's why keeping Fitzgerald is the right move for the Cardinals. It helps their product on and off the field. Like any aging star, the 31-year-old Fitzgerald isn't the 20-year-old version of himself. He changes, his game changes, the team changes.

But keeping him in Arizona was the latest good decision by Bidwill and the Cardinals.
TEMPE, Ariz. – Carson Palmer's recovery from ACL surgery appears to be going smoothly.

Palmer told ESPN NFL Insider Ed Werder that he’s “feeling great” more than three months after suffering the injury in Week 10 against the St. Louis Rams.

Palmer also told Werder that he expects to be cleared for on-field work and running in the next few weeks. The 35-year-old feels he’ll be ready to participate in minicamp and said he’ll “definitely” be prepared for training camp.

But that’s only if the Cardinals will allow Palmer to take the field for minicamp and OTAs.

Palmer missed 10 games last season – three for a nerve injury in his right throwing shoulder and seven games after his ACL injury. Palmer suffered the knee injury just two days after signing three-year extension worth $50 million extension.
A closer look at the areas the Cardinals could address in the draft. We'll get started Monday with a look at inside linebacker, which is scheduled to work out Sunday in Indianapolis.

Position of need: Inside linebacker. There has been a noticeable difference in how fast the Cardinals play at inside linebacker with and without Daryl Washington. With him, the Cardinals' defense is dangerous from sideline-to-sideline. Without him, they have a tendency to struggle against quick running backs, mobile quarterbacks and tight ends. Arizona showcased two inside backers last season -- Larry Foote and Kevin Minter -- who don't have the same type of athleticism as Washington, or even as Karlos Dansby.

Three players the Cardinals could target in the draft:

Denzel Perryman (ILB), Miami: He's the top-ranked player at inside linebacker by ESPN. He may be shorter than preferred at just about 5-foot-11, but his speed makes up for a lack of size. His scouting report identifies strong instincts and his top-level tackling, both of which the Cardinals would need should Larry Foote retire. However, he's been labeled as a “thumper” and the Cardinals already have their “thumper” in Minter.

Benardrick McKinney (ILB), Mississippi State: Perhaps the best inside linebacker in the draft, McKinney fits what the Cardinals are looking from a physical standpoint. He's 6-4 and runs the 40-yard-dash in 4.6 seconds. He's still a bit raw but working with new linebackers coach Bob Sanders should have him ready to go by Week 1. What's also enticing about McKinney besides his athleticism is his pass-rush skills, an area the Cardinals need help in.

Stephone Anthony (ILB), Clemson: His size -- just about 6-2 and 245 pounds -- fits what the Cardinals need, but he doesn't have the speed that the two inside linebackers ranked ahead of him have. His scouting report suggests there's a lot to work on but if he's not going to be a starter, then the Cardinals would have time to groom him, but that likely won't be the case.
TEMPE, Ariz. – When an Arizona Cardinals’ offensive play goes awry – or is executed to perfection – there’s no one for head coach Bruce Arians to blame or give credit to.

He calls all the offensive plays.

Arians is one of 10 head coaches around the league who are responsible for calling their team's offensive or defensive plays now that Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy relinquished the Packers’ offensive play calling responsibilities.

Of those 10, eight call offensive plays and two – Buffalo’s Rex Ryan and Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer – call defensive plays.

Arians happens to be the only head coach who calls his own plays to have made the playoffs last season. Arizona’s offense was ranked 24th in the league, but it was also battered by injuries at quarterback, running back and tight end.

Despite being in the bottom 10 in eight offensive categories, the Cardinals were among the league’s best in sacks allowed, turnovers committed, fumbles and fumbles lost. The teams whose head coaches call their offense found varied success: New Orleans was ranked No. 1 in offense last season while Tennessee was 29th.

Former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt directed the Titans’ offense to 26 touchdowns last season – one less than Arizona.

Regardless of what the stats say, the Cardinals keep on winning.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- If there was one person in the NFL who believed that age doesn't matter in coaching, it's Arizona's Bruce Arians.

He got his first head coaching job at 30, when he was hired to lead Temple University. And he was 60 when he was hired for his first NFL head coaching job with the Cardinals.

So hiring 36-year-old James Bettcher as the Cardinals' next defensive coordinator had less to do with age than it had to do with Bettcher's experience and Arians' trust and belief in the former outside linebackers coach.

"Age doesn't have s--- to do with it," Arians said. "If you ask that guy back there (Cardinals linebacker Lorenzo Alexander), ‘Can he coach?' I think he'll say, ‘Hell yeah.' The guys that he sat in rooms with --John Abraham, Robert Mathis -- they know he can coach. I know he can coach. There are guys that have jobs for 40 years that shouldn't have had them.

[+] EnlargeBruce Arians
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports"I don't think it would be long before he is a head coach," Bruce Arians said of his newly-promoted defensive coordinator, James Bettcher.
"So, age has nothing to do with it. It's the experience and, like I said, the command of the room is what has always sold me on him."

During Bettcher's introductory press conference Tuesday at the Cardinals practice facility in Tempe, Arians said Bettcher's command of the room impressed him going back to their days together in Indianapolis in 2012. Back then, Bettcher was the special assistant to Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, who had to miss 12 games while he battled Leukemia. Arians was named interim coach and Bettcher became his assistant.

Arians watched Bettcher during the next three seasons and saw how he interacted with players during team meetings, halftimes and practice.

"It's easy to recognize shooting stars," Arians said.

Then Arians told a story: When he accepted the Cardinals job in January 2013 and decided to take Bettcher with him, Arians received a text message from Colts Pro Bowl linebacker Robert Mathis. He was upset Bettcher was leaving because, under Bettcher's guidance, Mathis felt he improved for the first time in four years.

Bettcher's ability to connect to players -- rookies and Pro Bowlers alike -- and his penchant for making the right halftime adjustments led Arians to promote Bettcher.

But it was his capability to know when to listen that helped Bettcher ascend the coaching ranks in three years.

"If there's anything I've done right, it's shut up and listen from people and understand when you take notes and understand when you give input," Bettcher said. "And I think that's something that's important along the way."

One way Bettcher prepared himself for this job was by going through mental reps. Just as players would visualize plays, he spent the last three seasons watching every two-minute "situation" from every week in the NFL and then discussing them with either Pagano or Arians. That allowed Bettcher to be critical of the play calling in high-pressure scenarios and helped him figure out plays he'd call if he were in those situations.

Yet, what may be most vital to his success over the next few seasons is what he learned by watching and listening to former Cardinals' defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Bettcher wasn't specific with changes on Tuesday, but he doesn't plan on rewriting the entire playbook. He'll build on Bowles' scheme from the last two years.

What is yet to be determined is whether Bettcher will blitz as much as Bowles. The Cardinals lead the NFL since 2013 in blitz percentage but Bettcher said the Cardinals' aggressiveness will depend on personnel.

"I'd be foolish if I said I sat in the room and didn't learn from Todd," Bettcher said.

When Bowles took over the Cards' defense in 2013, he told the coaches and players that a defensive standard had already been set in Arizona but during his tenure, the Cardinals weren't going to play up to the bar. They were going to surpass it. Bettcher played off that Tuesday.

"We're going to approach this the same way," he said. "We're going to find ways to raise the bar, to play better defense and to get the job done."

One area Bettcher will address quickly when the players reassemble in Tempe in April will be eliminating big plays. The Cardinals gave up 75 plays of 20 yards or more last season which included 14 touchdowns, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

One of Arians' first remarks Tuesday was congratulating Bowles for becoming a head coach. His departure allowed Bettcher to join the ranks of assistants who made a quick ascent to defensive coordinator.

"It's fun to lose a son to something like being a head coach in the National Football League and Todd is that to me," Arians said. "I feel the same way about James."

At the rate Bettcher's career is taking off, in a few years Arians may be saying the same thing again.

"I don't think," Arians said, "it would be long before he is a head coach."