They had some high highs, landing the NFL career rushing leader and the most valuable player of this year's Super Bowl -- although even that is tempered by some critics' claims that running back Emmitt Smith, at 33, is over the hill and was overpaid, and that safety Dexter Jackson was an average player who seized the world's largest sporting stage to make a name for himself at the right time.
The Cardinals also had some low lows, including being spurned by their two highest-targeted defensive players who could have strengthened their biggest shortcoming, the pass rush. Outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin signed with New England for less than the Cards offered him. Defensive end Vonnie Holliday signed with the Kansas City Chiefs for about the same as the Cards offered him. In each case the player said he chose a team that had a better chance to win.
With Smith, the Cardinals believe they have strengthened their rushing game with a player that, despite claims by critics, still has two good years left. He will become the immediate starter as well as mentor to Marcel Shipp, who burst onto the scene late last season as an undrafted rookie.
In Jackson, the Cardinals found a younger, more athletic replacement for aging free agent Kwamie Lassiter, who still hasn't found a team.
They have filled several other holes with free-agent second-tier acquisitions. Quarterback Jeff Blake might be nothing more than a one- or two-year stopgap, but his career numbers are superior to the man he replaces, Jake Plummer, who signed with Denver.
Two-hundred, seventy-pound fullback James Hodgins should be an able lead blocker for Smith and Shipp. He was for Marshall Faulk while at St. Louis. Combined with the league's largest offensive line, there are few excuses now for not having an effective ground game.
Linebacker James Darling, from the New York Jets, could challenge for an outside linebacker position, where unsigned free agent Rob Fredrickson played. Darling also is effective in nickel packages and on special teams, a Cardinals weakness last season. Center-guard Frank Garcia, from St. Louis, will push to start at center, where Mike Gruttadauria started the past three seasons when healthy. Recurring injuries led the team to cut Gruttadauria last week. Offensive lineman Cameron Spikes, from Houston, doesn't appear to be anything more than an experienced backup, which could be valuable if the team suffers the widespread injuries across the line that it did last season.
The biggest disappointment, however, is the failure to significantly upgrade the defense, which was the primary focus going into free agency with nearly $40 million to spend, more than any team in the league.
Having Colvin and Holliday go elsewhere for less was embarrassing. The team now will have to upgrade through the draft, meaning the results won't be as immediate on the field, or through the second wave of free agency after June 1. Improving a pass rush that has ranked last in the NFL the past three years -- they had only 19 and 21 sacks the past two years alone -- is the key to any hopes the Cardinals have of ending a four-year skid since they last made the playoffs.
A close second is improving the receiving corps, which has lost David Boston and MarTay Jenkins to free agency, and still could lose veteran Frank Sanders. If the Cardinals have no credible outside threat, Smith and Shipp will face loaded defenses, a difficult situation every down no matter how big the line and lead fullback might be.
It will be a tough call for the Cardinals on draft day with the No. 6 pick if any two among a quality pass rusher like Arizona State's Terrell Suggs, a potential game-breaking receiver like Miami's Andre Johnson, or a stud defensive tackle like Kentucky's Dewayne Robertson or Penn State's Jimmy Kennedy still are on the board.
--With the Cardinals having lost out in free agency on DE Vonnie Holliday and OLB Rosevelt Colvin, they are turning to the draft to help shore up their pass rush.
"I'm hoping we will be able to come away with at least two defensive linemen in the draft," said Rod Graves, Cardinals vice president of football operations. "What we're focused primarily on is a pass rusher."
--The next-biggest need is at WR, but few believe that 37-year-old Tony Martin, who was out of the game last season, is the answer. Nevertheless, the Cardinals brought him in for a workout. Martin once was coached in San Diego by new Cardinals offensive coordinator Jerry Sullivan.
"Without him, I don't know where Tony Martin would be," Martin said. "When I first got to him, I could always run but I couldn't stop. But he showed me the ability to stop and to separate myself from players."
--Although Junior Seau's agent, Marvin Demoff, insists that his client would play for the Cardinals, it appears unlikely. The Cardinals are interested in the 11-time Pro Bowl OLB, who has been given permission by San Diego to shop for a trade. It's doubtful that anyone would trade for him before next Tuesday, April 15, when Seau is due a $2.7 million bonus.
Seau has said that he prefers to go to Miami.
"No one wants to trade for a player that doesn't want to be there," Seau told reporters in San Diego. "No matter what, I'm going to have the final say."
Seau has said he wants to go only to a championship contender. He has visited with Miami,
Team Report: Arizona
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