NFC West training camp preview: Arizona

Everything you want to know about the 49ers' NFC West rival Arizona Cardinals entering 2006 training camp, including camp calendar, team and personnel notes and unit-by-unit analysis at each position.

CAMP CALENDAR: The Cardinals report to training camp at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., on July 30 and have their first workout the morning of July 31. Camp ends on Aug. 17. Among the key changes are no intra-squad scrimmage and no weekend practices – Saturdays and Sundays off, an attempt to make the Monday through Friday regimen more intense and give players' bodies time to heal. Widespread injuries were a problem last season. The team works out on the fields just east of the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome at NAU. If it rains – and afternoon thunderstorms are common in Flagstaff in August – they move workouts inside.

CARDINALS' CAMP NOTEBOOK
--- Although rookie QB Matt Leinart, chosen 10th overall in the first round, has yet to sign his contract, he has purchased a multi-million-dollar home in the Ahwatukee area of Phoenix, about four miles from the Cardinals' Tempe training facility. But second-round pick Deuce Lutui, who was Leinart's college teammate at Southern California, and who has signed his contract (four years), closed on a four-bedroom home with a pool in more modest Mesa, about a 20-minute drive to the team's headquarters. Lutui grew up in Mesa, where he was a Cardinals fan. Leinart is expected to be the team's No. 2 or No. 3 quarterback this season as he learns the league and the team's system, but he is expected to be the franchise quarterback for many years after Kurt Warner retires in another year or two. Lutui might be in the lineup first, possibly as early as opening day, at left guard.
--- A workout in new Cardinals Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., will replace the annual intra-squad scrimmage during training camp. While all workouts in camp at Flagstaff, Ariz. are open to the public, the workout in the new stadium will be closed. Coach Dennis Green wants to players to get used to their new home before their preseason opener Aug. 12 against Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh, the initial game to be played in the $455 million retractable-roof, retractable-field facility.
--- While the Cardinals have marketed their first home season in their new stadium as sold out – all of the season tickets that were on the market quickly were gobbled up and they have a sizable waiting list of people who have plucked down deposits – the truth is that it is not. Yet. The team held back three percent of the inventory – roughly 3,000 tickets – to be sold as single-game for each of their 10 home dates. Those go on sale July 15 and are expected to quickly make the season sellout official. The team also is issuing tickets – they're free, but required – for tours of the new building during August. Based on early demand, they expect about 120,000 to take the tour.
--- There is a lot to like about the new Cardinals Stadium – innovative architecture, retractable roof to mitigate early-season triple-digit Sundays, luxury suites marketed as "lofts," the only retractable playing surface in North America -- but anyone who suffered through a brutal Sunday during the team's 18 seasons of home games at Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium no doubt will be more impressed with one simple luxury: the seats. They all have backs, all have cup holders and are wider -- 19 inches for the cheapest, 21 inches for the priciest. At Sun Devil Stadium, most seats were aluminum bleachers. There was no climate control. Couple uncomfortable seating on a hot day with a lousy on-field product and it was no mystery why the team was nearly always last in the league in home attendance. This season, it appears the TV blackout will be lifted every home Sunday – and those who get tickets will be seated in cool comfort to watch a team with an upgraded roster and a chance to reverse years of losing.

CAMP QUOTE TO NOTE: "Am I ready? I'm ready for football. It's a great time for Arizona Cardinal football. We're trying to turn things around. We've got the new stadium." -- G Deuce Lutui, the team's second-round pick, on signing a four-year contract.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--- G Deuce Lutui, the team's second-round pick from Southern California, signed a four-year contract. Terms were not disclosed. Lutui will compete at left guard, where he is expected to be a strong challenger to Reggie Wells, who might move to center and pave the way for Lutui to start as a rookie. Lutui was the 41st player chosen overall.
--- DT Jonathan Lewis, the team's sixth-round pick from Virginia Tech, signed a three-year contract. Terms were not disclosed. Lewis is among three newcomers with a chance to win the vacant nose tackle position, along with free agent Kendrick Clancy and fourth-round pick Gabe Watson, who has not yet signed. Lewis was the 177th player chosen overall.
--- No one has yet begun throwing around the "H" word, yet anyone who follows the Cardinals knows they're known for their first-round holdouts. As a highly drafted quarterback who has won a Heisman and a national title, Matt Leinart no doubt will be looking for a huge payday. The Cardinals' first-round pick, taken 10th overall, has not yet come to terms, but with two weeks before teams go to camp very few others selected in that stratosphere are under contract, either. Given the Cardinals' history, it is a situation that will bear close scrutiny as camp nears, though.
--- Also yet to sign: TE Leonard Pope, a third-round pick, and NT Gabe Watson, a fourth-round pick. Pope is expected to move into the lineup and might have the greatest immediate impact of any of the team's rookies. Watson has a dog image to overcome and if he can do it, he has the tools to challenge free-agent Kendrick Clancy to start.

CARDINALS' UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS ENTERING CAMP
QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Kurt Warner. Backups – John Navarre, Matt Leinart, Rohan Davey, Jeff Otis.
When Warner was healthy, he strung together 300-yard games reminiscent of his glory years. But Warner, 34, who signed a three-year contract in January, has played 16 games only once in six years. Leinart, a gift in the draft at No. 10 overall, at some point probably is going to play as a rookie. Leinart was regarded as the most ready of the three quarterbacks in the opening round. But it remains Warner's job as long as he can do it, and Leinart's is to learn from him and be ready. Navarre, a seventh-round pick in 2004, about whom Coach Dennis Green has raved for two years, will be hard pressed to be anything but the third quarterback.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Edgerrin James, FB Obafemi Ayanbadejo . Backups -- Marcel Shipp, J.J. Arrington, Roger Robinson, Damien Anderson, James Hodgins (FB).
With James, the threat of the run is restored to a one-dimensional offense. When combined with what was statistically the best passing game in the NFL, prospects become very real that the unit could rival those with which James played in Indianapolis and Warner played in St. Louis. Shipp, the Cardinals rushing leader three of the past four years, should be a fine complement. Shipp is a big body who is most effective between the tackles. Arrington, the second-round pick in 2005 to whom the Cardinals tried to give the job, falls another notch on the depth chart as he tries to shake a disastrous rookie season. And that might be a good thing. He was not ready. Now he can develop without pressure. Robinson set an NFL Europe rushing record but will be hard pressed to be above fourth on the chart.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- Leonard Pope. Backups -- Eric Edwards, Adam Bergen, John Bronson, Andy Stokes, Ben Hall, Alex Shor.
Pope, an athletic 6-foot-7 target, might make the greatest immediate impact of the entire rookie class. He gives the team a weapon it has not had -- a big, fast, target up the seam -- to complement the Pro Bowl outside receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, and to help open the running game for Pro Bowler Edgerrin James. Pope, with his blocking skills, is the complete package. Edwards is a good blocker but can't catch. Bergen is a good receiver but can't block.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin. Backups -- Bryant Johnson, Todd Watkins, LeRon McCoy, Carlyle Holiday, Troy Walters, Zamir Cobb, Damarius Bilbo, Greg Lee.
Fitzgerald and Boldin have a combined five years in the league and already both are Pro Bowlers. And 2003 first-round pick Bryant Johnson is an able third wideout. Fitzgerald broke Boldin's two-year-old franchise record for catches in a season (Boldin also topped his old number). And they did it when foes knew the Cardinals had to pass because they couldn't run. The knock on them is that none is really a burner. The team is hopeful a fourth receiver emerges who is both the deep threat they lack and can double as the return man.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Leonard Davis, LG Reggie Wells, C Alex Stepanovich, RG Milford Brown, RT Oliver Ross, Backups -- Deuce Lutui, Nick Leckey, Elton Brown, Jeremy Bridges, Alan Rueber, Dante Ellington, Rolando Cantu, Fred Wakefield, Shawn Lynch, Kyle Schmitt.
This unit clearly was the weak link. Lutui was drafted on the left side and free agent Milford Brown signed to play the right, ahead of Elton Brown. Veteran Wells may move to center to compete with Stepanovich, a 16-game starter in 2004 as a rookie but slowed last year by injuries. At the very least there will be competition for the jobs. Outside, the team appears destined to start the same pair of tackles, Davis on the left and Ross on the right. Both were underachievers in 2005.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Chike Okeafor, NT Kendrick Clancy, UT Darnell Dockett, RE Bertrand Berry. Backups -- Kenny King, Calvin Pace, Antonio Smith, Gabe Watson, Tim Bulman, Jonathan Lewis, Langston Moore, A.J. Schable, Tyler King, Anton Palepoi.
Getting the injured players back will be the equivalent of another round of free agency. Berry returns from injury to harass passers. Opposite him will be a battle between Okeafor and either King or Dockett. Dockett has been a two-year starter at "under" tackle, but he is undersize and now faces strong competition from King, coming back from two seasons missed to wrist surgery. King and Dockett can double outside, and one of them, likely Dockett, will make that move. Free agent Clancy or fourth-round pick Watson, who had first-round talent but fell because he often dogged it at Michigan, will replace departed long-time nose tackle Russell Davis.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Karlos Dansby, MLB Gerald Hayes, WLB Orlando Huff. Backups -- James Darling, Isaac Keys, Lance Mitchell, Darryl Blackstock, Lawrence Pinson, Brandon Johnson, Mark Brown.
Dansby had a break-out year on the strong side, establishing himself as an elite player who is adept at dropping into coverage to make an interception, or taking on a ball carrier to finish with a punishing blow, or rushing the quarterback and making the sack. In the middle, Hayes, the projected starter, didn't play a down last season but is back from injury to regain the job. On the weak side, Huff was a disappointment after coming from Seattle. Blackstone is moving from the strong side to challenge Huff. Darling, however, might wind up there if Hayes makes a successful return.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Antrel Rolle, CB David Macklin, SS Adrian Wilson, FS Robert Griffith. Backups -- Eric Green, Robert Tate, Dyshod Carter, Jay McCareins, Justin Wyatt, Lamont Reid, Darrell Hunter, Ernest Shazor, Chris Harrell, Jack Brewer, Aaron Francisco.
Rolle, who missed most of his rookie year to a knee injury, and Green was forced by injuries into some rookie-year starts before he was ready. Aging Macklin and Tate are still around but there isn't much quality depth and, for that matter, there remain questions regarding Rolle and Green. Wilson is the league's premier safety blitzer. Aging free safety Griffith will try to hold off unproven challengers.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters -- K Neal Rackers, P Scott Player, LS Nathan Hodel, KR-PR Michael Spurlock. Backups -- Nick Novak, Fered Capshaw, Troy Walters, Todd Watkins, LeRon McCoy.
The Cardinals have one of the best tandems in Pro Bowl place-kicker Rackers and former Pro Bowl punter Player. They're hoping an improved offense gives them and veteran long-snapper Hodel fewer opportunities to show their stuff, though. They got good through too many repetitions. The coverage units were an embarrassment, routinely giving TDs on punt and kickoff returns. Several players with special teams track records have been added. The Cards are in need of a return man, and will look first to Spurlock, Walters, Watkins and McCoy.


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