The biggest challenge facing the Arizona Cardinals when they entered training camp was making sure they kept veteran quarterback Sam Bradford healthy. Mission accomplished on that end. Now the team's biggest concern entering the regular season is, you guessed, making sure they keep Sam Bradford healthy.
Bradford didn't play a ton in the preseason, which was the plan all along, but his troublesome left knee didn't give him any problems at all. That's a very encouraging sign for the Cardinals under new head coach Steve Wilks, who hopes to establish Arizona's identity as that of being an aggressive takeaway machine on defense and a power running attack on offense that just happens to feature one of the most accurate passers in NFL history.
For his part, Bradford, who has a career 62.5 completion percentage, said he can't wait to finally put his injury history behind him and finally get to enjoy a season where all of his hard work will pay off.
"He's been doing that throughout preseason, in my opinion," Wilks said. "I think right now, his knee is healthy. We went through the process and (after taking a few hits) I think he got the jitters out, so I think he's on track. I think he's going to continue to strengthen that knee and work on it throughout the year. Hopefully, we can do everything we can to keep him healthy."
The other enormous key is the return of star running back David Johnson, who missed the final 15 games of last season due to a fractured left wrist. He's completely recovered and will be the Cardinals' main weapon for opposing defenses to contend with, starting in Sunday's season opener against the visiting Washington Redskins. Everything runs through Johnson.
"It's an identity that we talked about," Wilks said. "I said that we want to run the football, and I believe right now, the strength is in our offensive line, and we want to continue to set the tone up front. Not only for us just trying to create a new line of scrimmage, but also protecting the quarterback. When there's opportunities to be able to throw the football and go over the top, we want to make sure we're giving the QB the time to do that. So, I wouldn't question that at all. I think it does go through David."
Larry Fitzgerald, meanwhile, wondered often during camp how the team's competition at wide receiver would turn out. This was the first year in his 15 seasons with the Cardinals, he said, when he wasn't completely sure who would end being his teammates at the position. Arizona brought in several new faces, young and old alike, and it's a much younger room than Fitzgerald could have predicted.
The other receivers have a grand total of just four years worth of NFL experience between them. They include rookie second-round pick Christian Kirk, a starter, and second-year man Chad Williams, the team's No. 3 target. An undrafted rookie free agent, Trent Sherfield, also made the team.
"Experience is good when it's proven, when guys continue to progress and perform," Wilks said. "I told you guys this from Day 1 -- I don't mind playing rookies. That's my mindset. I'm going to play the guys that deserve the right to play, and most importantly, we kept the guys that I felt deserved the right to be here."
That includes some surprises on defense, where three other undrafted rookies made the team in linebacker Dennis Gardeck, safety Zeke Turner and cornerback Deatrick Nichols. They are each backups at key positions. The strength of Wilks' new 4-3 defense, however, lies in perennial Pro Bowl corner Patrick Peterson and sack-specialist defensive end Chandler Jones, who led the league with 17 sacks and 28 tackles for loss a year ago.
Not only do they believe they finally have found another starting corner in Jamar Taylor, whom they acquired from the Browns, but the Cardinals also have great speed and tenacity at linebacker with young players such as Deone Bucannon and Haason Reddick and they absolutely love their trio of safeties in Antoine Bethea, Tre Boston and second-year pro Budda Baker, who looks like a rising star. Wilks and his staff have preached forcing turnovers and his players responded with 17 takeaways in four preseason games -- the most by any one team during the preseason in 18 years.
Arizona could have one of the better return games on special teams with a healthy T.J. Logan manning kickoffs and Kirk handling punt-return duties. Both are incredibly quick and elusive.
If Bradford stays healthy, Johnson returns to 2016 form when he led the league in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns, and the defense can keep creating turnovers at such an alarming rate, the Cardinals could be one of the biggest surprise teams of 2018.
SERIES HISTORY: 124th regular-season meeting. Redskins lead series, 75-46-2. Washington has won 13 of the last 18 meetings but lost in each of its last two trips to University of Phoenix Stadium in 2014 and 2016. The teams met last season in Landover, Md. in Week 5 and the Redskins eliminated the Cardinals from playoff contention with a 20-15 victory. The Cardinals went 0 for 6 in the red zone and were just 4 of 19 on third-down conversions with third-stringer Blaine Gabbert as their starting quarterback.