The biggest glaring weakness for the Arizona Cardinals is the offensive line. With Edgerrin James in place the running back questions have been answered, the receiving core is still one of the five best in the league, the defense was underrated last year even with a rash of injuries and while Kurt Warner may not be #1 on anybody's fantasy draft list, he's a veteran quarterback that will benefit greatly from James' abilities behind him.
But is the offensive line the focus in the draft? More to the point, should it be? The Cardinals appear to be in a prime position to land a first round talent at virtually any position (except running back) holding the #10 spot. It is possible that either Vince Young (Texas) or Jay Cutler (Vanderbilt) could fall to the ten spot, more than one mock draft has the Cardinals taking massive DT Haloti Ngata out of Oregon, TE Vernon Davis (Maryland) had perhaps the best combine of any player at any position, and Winston Justice would bring his 6'6"/300lb frame, and the winning tradition he has developed as an offensive tackle at USC, if the Cardinals elected to continue their search for offensive line help.
Still, it all begins and ends with the quarterback. In the last 10 years the NFL has shown that you can win without a 'dominant' quarterback (Trent Dilfer anyone?), but it has also shown that the quarterback must be able to make some plays, if not all of them. With Warner signed for another three years, it appears that virtually any quarterback would be holding the clipboard for the majority of 2006, but Warner is not exactly known for his durability, and would the Cardinals really be comfortable with John Navarre piloting the offense in the inaugural year of their stadium? Denny Green has professed admiration, bordering on love, for Navarre, but he still refused to turn the offense over to him full time last year. Most feel that Young has the most upside of any quarterback this side of Matt Leinart, but most also feel he is a huge risk, and there is a growing sentiment in the league that as exciting as Michael Vick is, that style of quarterback may not be the player to lead a team to a championship.
Cutler on the other hand has consistently moved up in mock drafts since the start of his senior season, and after a stellar combine he has elevated himself into the 'Top 3' discussion at quarterback, along with Young and Leinart. Like many strong armed quarterbacks on less talented college teams, at times Cutler tried to use his excellent arm strength to force passes into areas he could not, but he has shown an ability to adapt and learn that indicates this is a trend that will gradually diminish after working with a NFL quarterbacks coach.
The bottom line is that Leinart will be gone, and Cutler and Young could be. If Cutler is available, it seems likely that Green and the Cardinals would be unable to resist the temptation to draft a 'quarterback of the future,' and in the same vein, for a franchise looking to build excitement in a new stadium, Young might just be too much of a draw to pass up if he's still around at #10. One thing seems certain, if none of the three are available, the Cardinals will go in a different direction.
Which leaves the Cardinals looking deeper in the draft for a signal caller. But how deep? With a relatively thin crop of QBs coming out this season might Green and company simply wait until next year to draft Warner's heir apparent? Might they be content with Navarre and look for a cheap, aging third stringer? The rest of the draft options at quarterback might give some clues.
A quick look at Scout.com's QB Prospect Rankings indicates that the pickings might be slim. Brody Coyle (Ala), Charlie Whitehurst (Clemson), and DJ Shockley (Georgia) are all intriguing prospects, in wildly different ways. Coyle is by far the most polished of the three, but also features the least upside, and has had difficulty making the deep throws, something that the Arizona offense will need with the talented crew of receivers it features.
Whitehurst has the arm, but nothing kills an NFL team like turnovers, and it seems more often than not that Whitehurst trusts his arm too much. Still he has the tools and size to develop into a nice pocket passer, and if the Cardinals are content to wait three or four years for him to develop, he may surprise some people as a finished product.
Shockley has by the biggest upside of the three, but likely the most work to do as well. Perhaps the most impressive thing about his game is his poise in the pocket, but there are questions about whether that will continue once he gets to the NFL and can't outrun everybody. Still, if Denny Green is thinking back to the last successful quarterback he drafted, Shockley has to remind him of Daunte Culpepper, at least in comparison to Coyle and Whitehurst.
Late in the draft there seems to always be one tarnish piece of gold waiting to be polished up, and this year it might be Central Michigan QB Kent Smith. Strong armed and improving, Smith could be the true meaning of 'QB of the Future' because he would almost certainly not see a snap in '06, but that might be exactly what Green is looking for. If he does indeed have real confidence in Navarre, Smith could spend all of '06 on the practice squad, improving his reads and fundamentals, something he has shown the ability to do during his rapid ascension toward legit NFL pick. He will likely be available late in the draft, and if the Cardinals have a shot in the sixth round or later, he's the keeper.