Behind enemy lines: Arizona

Are the Arizona Cardinals excited about hosting kickoff weekend against the 49ers in the regular-season debut of their new $455 million home stadium in suburban Phoenix? You bet they are. Here's a unit-by-unit roster analysis of the 49ers' first opponent of 2006, along with all the news, notes and player happenings coming out of Cardinals camp this week.

COACHING: Dennis Green, 13th year, 3rd with Cardinals (112-91).
REMEMBERING: 2005 record: 5-11 (3rd in NFC West); failed to make playoffs.
PREDICTING: 2006 regular season record 9-7 (2nd in NFC West); lose in 2nd round of playoffs.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK:
Starter - Kurt Warner. Backups - Matt Leinart, John Navarre.
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 after his dazzling preseason debut in which he solidified the backup role ahead of Navarre and showed he might be closer to Warner than anticipated.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB Edgerrin James, FB Obafemi Ayanbadejo. Backups - RB J.J. Arrington, RB Marcel Shipp.
With James, the threat of the run is expected to be restored to a one-dimensional offense, although that wasn't proven beyond doubt in preseason because James was allowed to do very little in games. Arrington, who was handed the starting job and lost it as a rookie in 2005, has moved to No. 2 ahead of Shipp, the team's rushing leader three of the past four years. Shipp's experience and willingness to play special teams keeps him on the roster. Ayanbadejo is more of a receiver than blocker.

TIGHT END/H-BACK: Starters - Leonard Pope. Backups - Adam Bergen.
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.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin. Backups - Bryant Johnson, Troy Walters, LeRon McCoy, Carlyle Holiday, Todd Watkins, Micheal Spurlock.
Fitzgerald and Boldin have a combined five years in the league and already are both Pro Bowlers. And 2003 first-round pick Johnson is an able third wideout. The knock on them is that none is really a burner. Competition was intense for Positions 4 through 6. Walters has experience and likely will return punts. McCoy is the burner but had thumb surgery and now his status is in doubt. Holiday, a former Notre Dame QB, is athletic and smart. McCoy's injury could open the door for Watkins or Spurlock.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Leonard Davis, LG Reggie Wells, C Alex Stepanovich, RG Milford Brown, RT Brandon Gorin. Backups - T Oliver Ross, G Deuce Lutui, C Nick Leckey, G Elton Brown, G-T Jeremy Bridges, T Fred Wakefield.
Davis has come back strong from an underperforming year. Stepanovich is regaining the form of a 16-game starter as a 2004 rookie after injuries last year. Brown, a free agent, took ownership of RG immediately. Gorin will start early while Ross recovers from knee surgery, and then they'll battle. The unit was the weak link and has only one way to go. Early indications show some improvement, but will it be enough?

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LE Chike Okeafor, NT Kendrick Clancy, T Darnell Dockett, RE Bertrand Berry. Backups - T Langston Moore, E A.J. Schable, E Antonio Smith, T Gabe Watson, T Jonathan Lewis, T Tim Bulman.
Free-agent Clancy has stepped in effectively as a run-stuffer. QB-sacker Berry showed no effects of a chest injury that landed him on Injured Reserve in 2005, but then suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for a couple of weeks -- but it is not expected to keep him out of the opening-day lineup. Dockett has bulked up and Okeafor is a perfect bookend to Berry. The issue is depth. Three rookies might make it.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - SLB Calvin Pace, MLB Gerald Hayes, WLB Orlando Huff. Backups - OLB Karlos Dansby, M-OLB James Darling, OLB Darryl Blackstock, MLB Mark Brown.
Dansby, after a break-out year on the strong side, was expected to be the star of the group but he did nothing -- literally -- in camp and through most of preseason (thumb, toe) and may have lost his job to Pace, who has been dazzling in his move from DE. Hayes reclaimed his spot in the middle after missing 2005 to a knee injury. The issue is the weak side, where Huff retains the job for now but will be pushed by Darling and, perhaps, by Dansby when/if he resumes practice.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Antrel Rolle, RCB David Macklin, SS Adrian Wilson, FS Robert Griffith. Backups - CB Eric Green, CB Robert Tate, CB Dyshod Carter, SS Ernest Shazor, FS Aaron Francisco.
Rolle has come back from a knee injury to play like the former first-round pick that he is, and nobody could nudge out aging veterans Macklin and Griffith. Tate will be the nickel back. The star of the unit is Pro Bowler Wilson, who had eight sacks on blitzes, most by a DB since the league began keeping the statistic. Collectively, it is an average unit that could be made more effective by a front seven that probably won't take as many chances this year.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Neil Rackers, P Scott Player, LS Nathan Hodel, KOR J.J. Arrington, Bryant Johnson. PR Troy Walters, Bryant Johnson.
The Cardinals have one of the best tandems in Pro Bowler Rackers, who made an NFL-record 40 last year, and former Pro Bowler Player, whose mastery of hang time and directional punting are field-position weapons. The return jobs, where competition is intense, are not yet settled. The big emphasis has been on shoring up coverage teams, which surrendered three TDs last year.

HOT TOPIC

The Cardinals' goals entering training camp were to improve in the two basic elements of the game – running and stopping the run.

It starts with solidifying the line on each side of the ball.

Mission accomplished on the defensive side, at least among the starters. Free agent nose tackle Kendrick Clancy effectively stepped into the spot vacated by Russell Davis, who went to NFC West foe Seattle. Clancy appears to be their run-stuffer. He joins right end Bertrand Berry, one of the premier sack men who is coming off a chest injury in 2005 and a knee injury in preseason, left end Chike Okeafor and under tackle Darnell Dockett up front.

As long as those four can stay on the field, the Cardinals will be fine.

But on the offensive side, there remain plenty of questions up front for a unit that has had very few preseason game reps with new running back Edgerrin James.

"I just know that we have to be able to have the balance. We want Edge to get 20-plus carries a game. That's crucial," said coach Dennis Green. "To do that, you've got to be able to get the first downs. We want that balance."

Having said that, Green gave James most of the preseason off – seven carries for 1 yard through three games. That didn't help development of the rushing game.

Yet there are encouraging signs from some linemen who were laggards in 2005.

Leonard Davis retains the left tackle spot largely because there was no one to challenge him – although coaches and teammates rave about his improved work in preseason. Reggie Wells retained the left guard spot ahead of second-round pick Deuce Lutui, and the rumored move of Wells to center did not materialize. As Lutui develops, that still could happen.

Alex Stepanovich retained his center spot, but just because he held off Nick Leckey is no cause for jubilation. The jury is still out regarding whether Stepanovich is a true NFL center. Free agent right guard Milford Brown took command as expected and appears to be a strong run blocker who needs work on pass protection.

But at right tackle, where Oliver Ross had a so-so debut year after signing in 2005 as a free agent, red lights flash. Ross is recovering from knee surgery. He says he has a chance to make it back for the opener. A more realistic time frame is Game 3. Meanwhile, the Cardinals traded for Brandon Gorin from New England. Gorin is still getting familiar with his new surroundings but he is expected to start the opener, and may be hard for Ross to knock out of the job upon his return.

"(Gorin) has good feet, very good hands and is a pass blocker," Green said. "He is going to work hard on the run block. That is always the most difficult part when you are new because you have to work together with the tight end and the guard that you're going to spend a lot of time with. He'll get more work this week so hopefully the run block will be there."

The Cardinals had the worst rushing game in the NFL last season, and one of the worst since the NFL-AFL merger. A huge key to the season will be whether the Cardinals establish at least the threat of a running game, which would make them more effective in short-yardage, red-zone and goal-line situations.

The Cardinals now have a fine 1-2-3 running back combination in James, J.J. Arrington and Marcel Shipp. They have former MVP Kurt Warner at quarterback and what they believe to be an excellent quarterback in waiting in rookie Matt Leinart. Management wouldn't be keen on seeing any of them maimed as a result of the sort of line play the team suffered through while winning six and five games the past two years.

And while the defense ranked among the league's top 10 a year ago despite widespread personnel losses to injuries, the Cardinals often could not get the big stop when they needed it.

There are now a multitude of interesting pieces, and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's M.O. has been that of the mad scientist, concocting schemes, packages and plans. He has had to be clever because of the injuries.

But with questionable coverage in the secondary, the team might back off on some of the pressure up front. That means the down line has to be much more of a factor by itself. As the preseason wore on, there were increasing signs that it could happen.

And the team has begun to develop some depth with ends Antonio Smith and undrafted rookie A.J. Schable showing promise. But depth at tackle is scary-thin since Kenny King was injured during training camp for the third consecutive year. King is lost for the year following surgery on his hand.

CARDINALS NOTEBOOK

--- TE Fred Wakefield collects NFL jerseys – his own. Now in his sixth season with the Cardinals, he was just moved to his fifth position – TE – forcing him into yet another number change, his fourth.

He has appeared in Nos. 97, 79, 78 and now 87 while playing DT, DE (where he started 22 games), G, T and TE.

Wakefield says he has his old jerseys framed and hanging in his home

Wakefield isn't being moved to become a receiver. He will be primarily a blocking TE, although he has run routes and caught passes in his first week of practice, prompting some teasing from teammates who are more accustomed to seeing him do grunt work.

--- RB Edgerrin James made only two of his seven preseason carries in new Cardinals Stadium – for minus-2 yards – but it was enough for him to form a positive opinion on the new track.

"Probably the fastest surface I've ever played on," James said of the Tifway 419 natural-grass surface in the $455 million Cardinals Stadium.

It is the only retractable field in North America. It is rolled outside for watering and sun exposure when not is use on game-days.

--- The early lasting memory of others on the team regarding their new home has nothing to do with the speed of the sod surface but the din from the stands, where sellout crowds will watch them all season.

"Having a home-field advantage is big in this league," said DE Bertrand Berry. "Whenever you play at home you should be comfortable there and have your fans on your side. It is up to you as an individual and as a team to take advantage of it. We're preparing to go out, play hard and play fast and give the fans something to yell about."

Berry is back at practice after being held out of the final two preseason games (knee bruise) as a precaution. He is expected to be nearly 100 percent for Sunday's opener at home vs. San Francisco.

"He could have (come back) but we weren't going to do that for the preseason," Coach Dennis Green said. "He was ready to go, but we just kept him on the shelf."

--- A few years back, the Cardinals opened the season without a center. Lately they've been doing business in a more conventional manner, paddling out of the NFL backwaters.

And then, they cut both of their blocking fullbacks, James Hodgins and John Bronson, the week of the opener.

It's no scoop that the team uses primarily three-receiver sets and when a FB is on the field, it is Obafemi Ayanbadejo, who is more receiver than blocker.

Yet the team gives lip service to establishing the run, and backed up its words by signing Edgerrin James, who likely would have enjoyed running behind the 260-pound Hodgins as much as Marshall Faulk once did when St. Louis won the Super Bowl. And one of the Cardinals greatest shortcomings was their inability to pick up crucial short yardage in the red zone and near the goal line, primarily because they could not run.

While it is possible that Hodgins could be re-signed after opening week, when his salary no longer will be guaranteed, having no blocking fullback on the roster for the opener goes against the grain of everything the Cardinals have said they want to do to reverse their fate.

--- Hodgins wasn't the only surprise cut. He and others -- possibly OL Jeremy Bridges -- may resurface as early as Week 2. Vested veterans who are on the opening-week roster have their salaries guaranteed for the season. Hodgins was to make $1 million this year, after he'd been sidelined by injuries for two seasons. He came back two weeks ago and played well in the final preseason game.

--- RB Marcel Shipp, the Cardinals' rushing leader three of the past four years, is No. 3 on the depth chart and hanging on largely because of his willingness to play special teams. Along his journey, he has been benched in favor of Thomas Jones, Emmitt Smith, J.J. Arrington and Edgerrin James, but always seems to find his way back into the thick of the action.

"All you can do is stay positive," Shipp said. "I've learned a lot, basically patience and just letting things develop. Those are the things I learned from Emmitt as well as Edgerrin, who I think has a similar style to Emmitt.

"I came in as a (rookie) free agent and free agents are really not supposed to be here. I have always had odds and I am here today because I defeated those odds that were against me. Edgerrin is a great back, and my time will come and when I am called upon I will be ready."

--- TE Leonard Pope at 6-feet-8 and 265 pounds has put his stature as the team's tallest player to good use already. In a preseason game at Chicago, Pope's first pro start, he leapt in the corner of the end zone to snag his first touchdown pass from Kurt Warner.

"That was nice because I needed every inch of him on that pass," Warner said. "You just pop it up in the corner and you know that you can put it some place that nobody can get it except him. It is nice to have a guy like that in the red zone. I also think he is going to be a nice target across the middle when you have to throw over the linemen. When you have a guy that big where you can put it up a little higher than some receivers I think is going to be an advantage for us."

--- The roster has been upgraded – at least among front-line players – and the new stadium is open and sold out. Expectations are high in Arizona for the Cardinals, but perhaps not as high on the national scene. There was great preseason buzz a year ago, too, and then the multitudes that projected the Cardinals as NFC West champs were burned when the team sunk to 5-11.

"We're still the underdogs," Green said. "Nobody is picking us to win the West this time. Everybody is picking Seattle and they're a team that deserves all the accolades they're getting. I think people feel we're on the move but in the same sense we still are the underdogs."

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--- QB Matt Leinart, whose right (non-throwing) shoulder popped out of the socket during the final preseason game, has no structural damage and is expected to be available as the backup to Kurt Warner in the opener Sunday.
--- SS Hanik Milligan, formerly with San Diego, was claimed off waivers. The team needed another reliable SS fast after Ernest Shazor, who was making excellent progress, suffered a season-ending injury in the final preseason game. Milligan was a special-teams Pro Bowler last season, an area the Cardinals still need to upgrade after surrendering three touchdowns on returns on 2005.
--- CB Matt Ware, formerly with Philadelphia, was claimed off waivers and initially will be the fifth CB but could quickly challenge backups Robert Tate and Eric Green. Ware also is a special teams player, having blocked a field goal and returned it for a TD last season. He was the Eagles' third-round pick in 2004.
--- T-G Chris Liwienski, an eight-year veteran formerly with Minnesota, was signed for veteran depth. He initially played for Cardinals Coach Dennis Green in Minnesota and started nine games for the Vikings at LG last season.
--- DE Bertrand Berry, the right-side starter, has returned to practice after bruising his knee in Preseason Game 2 at New England. He was held out of the remainder of preseason games largely as a precaution. He is the team's strongest pass rusher, having earned Pro Bowl honor in 2004 with his 14.5 sacks followed by six in eight games last year before being sidelined by a chest injury.
--- OLB Karlos Dansby, who has not practiced since the team went to training camp (toe), on Wednesday was ruled out for the opener. Dansby had three interceptions and four sacks during a breakout 2005.
--- TE Fred Wakefield was moved from T the week of the opener to take advantage of his athleticism after the team unexpectedly released Eric Edwards, a 10-game starter the past two seasons. Wakefield has played DT, DE, G and T since making the team as an undrafted rookie in 2001. He was a 22-game starter at DE during previous coaching regimes. He is listed third on the depth chart at TE and will be primarily a blocker. He could also line up as the blocking FB. The team cut both of theirs.
--- TE Leonard Pope, a rookie third-round draft pick, won the TE job and will be in the lineup on opening day. At 6-8 and with leaping ability, he will be an especially valuable target near the goal line.
--- RB-S Diamond Ferri, a rookie who was impressive carrying the ball and even more impressive on special teams, made the roster and promptly was moved to S. He could be used as a fourth RB. He was signed Aug. 1 after camp started.
--- A.J. Schable, an undrafted rookie from South Dakota State, is in the NFL, which is a far cry from being is one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the North Central Conference. He impressed coaches from the opening workout and has moved to No. 2 on the right side behind Bertrand Berry. Whether Schable survives Week 2, when some veterans could be re-signed, will be telling.

PLAYER TO WATCH: DE A.J. Schable – The undrafted rookie from South Dakota initially appeared to be nothing more than a camp body. Then when backup Kenny King had season-ending hand surgery, Schable moved to No. 2 on the depth chart and caught coaches' attention. And when starter Bertrand Berry suffered a minor knee injury in the second preseason game, Schable stepped forward once again and impressed the coaches enough that he is now a strong contender to make the roster and be in the rotation. In college, Schable had 44.5 tackles for loss and 28 sacks, eye-popping numbers that were tempered in the minds of some scouts by the level of competition he faced in the small-school ranks with the Coyotes. He appears to be for real.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

--- Rd. 1/10, QB Matt Leinart, Southern California -- After two days of practice following a holdout, Leinart was tossed into a one-minute drill at New England vs. the Patriots first defense and promptly drove the team to its only points of the game. In his second outing against another playoff-caliber defense, Chicago, he completed 12 successive passes during one stretch and again led scoring drives against a first unit. He's going to prove to be a steal at No. 10 and could create a controversy with veteran Kurt Warner a couple of years ahead of schedule.
--- Round 2/41, LG Deuce Lutui, Southern California -- Hasn't yet made the expected push on starter Reggie Wells but definitely will make the roster as a backup and see time in relief. Could move into the lineup before the year is over with his massive power for run blocking.
--- Round 3/72, TE Leonard Pope, Georgia -- "Big Country" (6-8, 256) got a preseason start and caught a TD pass vs. Chicago. With his size and athleticism (4.6-second 40-yard dash, 37 1/2-inch vertical leap) he is going to be a factor in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He may not be a full-time player initially but that will come as his blocking, which is not horrible, improves. Just has to learn to bend his hips and knees and play lower.
--- Round 4/107, DT Gabe Watson, Michigan -- No issues on size, strength or talent, and he has begun to answer any doubts about his attitude and work ethic. Has the physical tools to challenge Kendrick Clancy for the starting job, but Clancy's experience has him firmly on the first unit early with Langston Moore listed second, ahead of Watson, who is on the third level.
--- Round 6/177, DT Jonathan Lewis, Virginia Tech -- A stud who showed he could handle and beat double teams to make tackles for loss and get to the quarterback comes to a team that needs just that. Moved to No. 2 on the depth chart and will see action in the rotation.


Niners Digest Top Stories