Cardinals fail to live up to Super Bowl expectations

The Arizona Cardinals (7-8-1) ended the season with an 44-6 win over the Los Angeles Rams. Here is a look at the season and what’s next:

Grade: C-minus

Season summary: After finishing 2015 with a loss in the NFC Championship Game, the Cardinals were the chic pick to win Super Bowl LI. Arizona (x-x-x) faltered from the start, losing the types of close games it won last season. Four were lost by special teams. Injuries depleted the offensive line and secondary. Receiver Michael Floyd's DUI arrest after Week 14 led to him being cut. The Cardinals' offense, which returned every player who caught a pass and scored a touchdown in 2015, failed to live up to the standard it set last season. That was due, in part, to defenses figuring out how to contain Arizona’s vertical passing game and in part by coach Bruce Arians not adapting quickly enough to intermediate passing.

The Cardinals’ offense was defined by one name in 2016: David Johnson. The second-year running back led the league in yards from scrimmage and led all non-quarterbacks in touchdowns while setting a handful of team and NFL records, including most touchdowns and most rushing touchdowns in a season in Cardinals history. He made a case week after week to be the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Biggest draft need: While Arizona needs to find its quarterback of the future, the most pressing draft need is a talented, experienced cornerback. The Cardinals tried a converted cornerback (Brandon Williams), an inexperienced cornerback (Justin Bethel) and a cornerback who had struggled for most of his career (Marcus Cooper). They need to draft a top-tier talent who can complement Patrick Peterson and not give quarterbacks an easy option while staying away from Peterson.

Key offseason questions

Will Larry Fitzgerald return in 2017? While Fitzgerald, 33, has said he’ll take some time after the season to reflect on 2016 and decide, there are signs that point to him returning. First and foremost, there’s a good chance he’ll finish the season as the league’s reception leader. Then again, that could be used as motivation to quit while he’s on top. But as long as quarterback Carson Palmer and Arians return in 2017, Fitzgerald will probably return. If he doesn’t, the Cardinals will be in panic mode to replace their top two receivers of the past five seasons now that Floyd plays for the New England Patriots. The Cardinals’ passing game would be in a state of disarray should Fitzgerald retire. But there’s one thing that’s still driving him: a title. And as long as he feels he could still contend, he will play.

Will the Cardinals draft their quarterback of the future? Palmer turned 37 on Dec. 27 and has one, maybe two, good seasons left. As long as he continues to throw for 4,000 yards and doesn’t get hurt behind sub-par offensive lines, the Cardinals will have time to groom their quarterback of the future. But with Arizona expected to have a high pick in the 2017 draft, drafting a quarterback would be wise. The Cardinals have seen what lower-round quarterbacks -- Logan Thomas and Matt Barkley, for example -- can become. They don’t need to draft someone who’s NFL-ready as a rookie, but rather someone who’s intelligent enough to sit and absorb the Cardinals’ complex playbook and process that before he starts in 2018 or beyond.

Will the Cardinals keep Chandler Jones? The Cardinals have the New York Giants to thank for skewing the market for pass-rushers. When the Giants gave Olivier Vernon an $85 million contract in free agency ahead of 2016, they set the market for Jones. Jones could finish with a second consecutive season of double-digit sacks. But his impact on the Cardinals’ defense, which is on pace for its second-most sacks since 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information, goes beyond the field. Jones' lighthearted personality has trickled its way through the locker room. The defensive line has been closer this season than in the past and is playing like it. Jones is the foundation, and that’s hard to replace. And having Jones on the field obviously helps as well. As one of the elite pass-rushers in the NFL, he draws the attention of opposing offensive lines, which has allowed Markus Golden get 12.5 sacks and the interior of the line to play fast and uninhibited.