Arizona Cardinals: Team Report

Although they turned one first-round pick into two in a draft-day trade down and brought in some aging big-name free agents, it still will be a chore for the Cardinals to improve upon their five wins of last season.

For one thing, the entire NFC West is improved. Everybody else has proven quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and defenses rebuilt over the past two seasons with athletic youngsters.

The Cardinals can't make that claim. They have deficiencies throughout that will relegate them, once again, to also-rans.

The biggest concern is a defense that surrendered 417 points and numerous big plays in the passing game because it lacked both a pass rush and strong cover players.

The team hopes it improved the rush by drafting end Calvin Pace in the first round, and is banking on shoring up the coverage with the signing of free safety Dexter Jackson, who was Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl with Tampa Bay.

Another concern is stopping the rush with tackles that are nimble but not bulky in front of an undersized middle linebacker. The team is moving away from two-gap responsibility up front, which should allow the players to use their quickness to greater benefit. Middle linebacker Ron McKinnon, who was effective when playing behind larger tackles early in his career, faces to challenge to keep his job from free agent James Darling.

Offensively, the team has systematically attempted to build a stronger rushing attack with high emphasis on the offensive line. This off season, it added NFL career rushing leader Emmitt Smith to run behind it and fullback James Hodgins to lead for him.

On paper, it appears sound, but it will work only if a very inexperienced group of receivers poses enough of an outside threat to catch passes from new quarterback Jeff Blake to take some pressure off.

Blake has a strong arm, and there is some speed outside from Bryan Gilmore and Jason McAddley, the two fastest players on the team. Their seasons were thwarted by injuries in 2002.

New coordinator Jerry Sullivan has not installed a go-downtown offense, but he is not afraid to pick his spots to try to hit a deep play. Play-action will be the primary staple, though.

The team still has one of the game's steadiest punters, Scott Player, who has been a Pro Bowler.

Another intense battle is shaping up at kicker between Bill Gramatica, who made a successful return last season from a knee injury suffered as a rookie, and Tim Duncan, who most observers believed battled Gramatica to a draw last season during camp.

The coverage teams really hurt the Cardinals last season, especially after widespread injuries mounted from the fourth game on. The team was using inexperienced players on special teams and that was reflected in foes averaging just over 24 yards a kickoff return and 13 yards on punt returns.

Another special-teams concern is who will return punts after Arnold Jackson was not offered a new contract. There are no experienced candidates.

For the Cardinals to have anything more than another five- or six-win season, they've got to get plenty of bang for the buck from their group of free-agent acquisitions -- Smith, Blake, Jackson, Darling -- and they've got to get some unexpected come-up performances from the group of young unknowns.

CAMP CALENDAR: Camps opens at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff on Friday, July 25, and continues through Aug. 21. The most notable highlight along the way is the annual intra-squad scrimmage in the Walkup Skydome on Aug. 2.

CardinalsSource Top Stories