By all accounts, the Arizona Cardinals are in much better shape heading into the 2014 season than they were entering the 2013 campaign.
Their defense has emerged as one of the best in the league. Their offense is filled with playmakers at the skill positions. The offensive line should be improved, and Carson Palmer stands to be the first QB to start Week 1 in consecutive seasons since Kurt Warner did so in 2008 and 2009.
But no matter how much things may have improved in Arizona, the unfortunate reality is it still might not be enough to get them to the top of the ridiculously loaded NFC West.
That seems to be the belief shared by ESPN's panel of NFL and analysts, who in an ESPN Insider piece about the future power rankings has the Cardinals 16th in the NFL, but fourth in the NFC West.
The panel rated every NFL team's three-year projection in roster (excluding QB), QB, draft, front office and coaching, with the results being averaged and weighted to produce the overall rankings.
It's noted that the Cardinals improved in every one of the five categories since last season -- and their movement in the non-QB roster category tied San Diego for the biggest jump in the league in that spot -- but unfortunately their uncertainty at QB beyond this season holds them back a bit.
The dilemma: The QB position will determine the fate of this franchise the next three seasons, with Palmer (who is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2014 season) and with his eventual successor (Logan Thomas, Ryan Lindley or a player not yet on the roster). Palmer turned the ball over in every one of the first nine games of the 2013 season, which will kill the fortunes of any team, no matter how good the defense (the Cardinals' defense was fourth in the NFL in yards allowed per play in 2013). Patrick Peterson will be due for a big contract extension soon, so figuring out the QB position is just a starting point. --Louis Riddick
As far as the future is concerned, Mel Kiper wrote that while the Cardinals don't have an obvious successor for Palmer, provided they can block for him he'll be pretty effective leading the team. The big thing, he believes, is actually the development of the team's secondary, especially with Tyrann Mathieu and rookie Deone Bucannon.
This could become not merely one of the best secondaries in the NFL but also one of the NFL's most versatile and effective in tackling -- a huge factor when you play Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson each two times a season.
Indeed, the Cardinals appear to be in pretty good shape going forward. However, the panel placed the St. Louis Rams 12th, San Francisco 49ers third and the Seattle Seahawks first.