Warner Returns; Top 5 In Draft; Roster Report

What will the team look like next year? Well, they'll have at least one big time prospect, since once again the Cardinals will be picking in the top five of the draft. ALSO: Francisco's contract; Some but not all of the assistance fired as well; late roster additions could preview next year's team; Shipp leads list of free agents.

--Although he unexpectedly sat and watched rookie QB Matt Leinart for 11 games after losing the starting job a month into the season, veteran QB Kurt Warner says he now is leaning strongly toward coming back. Warner started the finale at San Diego after Leinart suffered a shoulder injury that will not require surgery.
The Cardinals started 1-3 with Warner in the lineup. They were 4-7 in Leinart's starts. The rookie was the beneficiary of an improved running game with the 100-yard rushing efforts of Edgerrin James, things Warner was expected to have but did not during the rough start.
"Unfortunately it took a few weeks early in the year to go through those growing pains and find out what it is we were going to be, what we were going to hang our hat on," Warner said. "We're starting to become what we think we can be here."
Warner, 35, is under contract for 2007 and 2008, but only a month ago was sending signals that this season would be his last, citing family commitments.
"I'm going to come back and play," he said. "I want to play. I feel like I have a lot of football left in me. That's my plan as of right now, not that that can't change when the offseason comes around and me and my family sit down. But I signed a contract to be here with the Cardinals. That's where I go into the off-season thinking."
--The Cardinals, with another single-digit-wins season, once again are in the top five of the draft in April. Thanks to gaining their five wins against a weaker schedule than Washington did for its five wins, the Cardinals at least won a tiebreaker to put them into the fifth draft slot, behind Oakland (2-14, but one of the wins was over the Cardinals), Detroit (3-13, including a seven-point loss to the Cards), Cleveland (4-12) and Tampa Bay (4-12).
--The Cardinals will play at least one team at home in 2007 that, like them, will have a new coach. Atlanta is on the home slate along with Pittsburgh -- which could have a new coach. Arizona also will host Carolina, Detroit, Cleveland and NFC West foes Seattle, St. Louis and San Francisco.
On the road, in addition to the Seahawks, Rams and 49ers, the Cardinals will visit New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Washington, Baltimore and Cincinnati.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're not too far away from being a good football team, but at the same time until you win those games and beat the good teams, you'll never be considered a good team. I think the question for all of us is why didn't we play the first nine weeks like we have the last seven. What was it? What changed and what are we doing different now? I think that is the question we are all going to ask ourselves over the offseason." -- Cardinals QB Kurt Warner, on the team winning four of its final seven games after a 1-8 start and seeing coach Dennis Green fired.

--S Aaron Francisco, who functioned as the nickel back and was a stud on special teams, was signed to a four-year contract extension. He likely will be the starter at free safety if veteran Robert Griffith retires as expected. Francisco made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2005. He was selected as a 2007 Pro Bowl alternate on special teams.
--CB David Macklin (hamstring) was placed on injured reserve shortly before the finale at San Diego. The injury will be no factor, but his play makes his return questionable in 2007. The team's corners were synonymous with toast.
--WR/PR Troy Walters (ankle), the No. 4 receiver, was placed on injured reserve shortly before the finale at San Diego.
--QB Shane Boyd was promoted to the 53-man roster shortly before the finale at San Diego to give the team three quarterbacks with Matt Leinart injured and missing the game. The move largely was for insurance, and Boyd did not play.
--WR Micheal Spurlock was promoted to the 53-man roster shortly before the finale at San Diego to give the team depth at receiver with Troy Walters injured and missing the game. Spurlock caught four passes for 31 yards against the Chargers, including one for 15 yards. The converted college quarterback made the team as an undrafted rookie.
--WR Todd Watkins was promoted to the 53-man roster shortly before the finale at San Diego to give the team depth at receiver with Troy Walters injured and missing the game. He was inactive. Watkins was the team's seventh-round pick last April.
--RB Diamond Ferri, who was called up to the 53-man roster twice, was re-signed to the practice squad.
COACHING CAROUSEL: Head coach Dennis Green and four of his assistants were fired after the team posted its third consecutive record with double-digit losses. Green will be paid $2.5 million for the final year of his contract and undoubtedly soon will turn up again as a television commentator -- although as of Wednesday he had not met with Phoenix-area reporters nor returned phone calls since he was terminated Monday.
The Cardinals were 16-32 under Green, who'd taken Minnesota to the playoffs eight of his 10 years there. By contrast, the Cardinals have had one winning season in 22 years and have one playoff win in six decades. Even Green couldn't reverse that.
Nor, in all likelihood, will his successor.
--Cardinals vice president and general counsel Michael Bidwill and vice president of operations Rod Graves, who received a new three-year contract the day Green was fired, have identified seven candidates to succeed Green: Houston assistant head coach and former Green Bay coach Mike Sherman, Chicago defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, Indianapolis assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, San Diego offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, Tennessee offensive coordinator Norm Chow, Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and Pittsburgh offensive line coach Russ Grimm.
Graves said there may be more, and he has not ruled out a college coach.
With the exception of Sherman, the Cardinals thus far are pursuing no one with NFL head coaching experience.
--Dismissed along with Green: tight ends coach Carl Hargrave, secondary coach Richard Solomon, special teams coach Gary Zauner and strength and conditioning coach Steve Wetzel.
--Three other assistants had contracts lapse and likely will not be back: running backs coach Kirby Wilson, former offensive coordinator Keith Rowen and quality control coach Bill Khayat.
--The team is retaining seven coaches, at least for now, who are under contract, but their fate ultimately will be determined by the new head coach: defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, offensive coordinator Mike Kruczek, assistant head coach/linebackers Frank Bush, offensive line coach Steve Loney, defensive line coach Larry Brooks, quality control coach Rick Courtright and receivers coach Mike Wilson.
Pendergast has a reputation for being a clever schemer and game-planner, often doing more with less when saddled by a pair of pedestrian corners and mounting injuries along the line. He should be a strong candidate to stay.
Kruczek has good rapport with rookie QB Matt Leinart, and the offense finally began to produce late in the year, largely because the running game developed to complement a high-powered passing game.
FREE AGENT UPDATE: LT Leonard Davis, the second pick overall in the 2001 draft, is to become an unrestricted free agent. The team passed on the opportunity to extend the 6-foot-6, 365-pound behemoth when it had plenty of room under the salary cap, dissuaded by his underachieving. He never played commensurate with his draft position. Six years into his career he still is not a Pro Bowler. His best seasons were early in his career, when he played right guard. His play improved during the second half of this season as the running game came along and a few wins accompanied it. The team has a tough call here. Investing a ton of money in a long-term commitment to Davis is risky. It also would cost a small fortune to replace him. He could be tagged, but if the team thinks that highly of him, it should have extended him when it had a chance for less than it would be required to shell out if it tags him.
He made more than $9 million in 2006.
Davis, on whether he'll be at a new address next season: "It wouldn't surprise me."
--RB Marcel Shipp, who despite watching the starting job get handed to Michael Pittman, Thomas Jones, Emmitt Smith, J.J. Arrington and Edgerrin James still managed to lead the team in rushing three of the past five years, becomes an unrestricted free agent and no doubt will get some play. He lacks breakaway speed, the reason he went undrafted in 2001 coming out of Massachusetts. But he is a solid north-south rusher and a decent receiver, and he settled into the role of short-yardage/goal-line back in 2006 after the team signed James. The Cardinals no doubt would have interest in bringing him back if the price is right.
--C Alex Stepanovich becomes a restricted free agent. A 16-game starter as a rookie in 2004, he had his 2005 season truncated by injuries before losing the job to Nick Leckey in 2006. He'll likely get a low tender offer from the team, but to what degree he is in their plans is debatable. He's a decent, experienced backup, and there's some value in that in this league.
FEELING A DRAFT: The Cardinals will have the fifth pick in the first round in the April draft.
Cornerback and offensive line will be the leading priorities.
The team started the pedestrian pair of Antrel Rolle, who is beginning to look like a bust after his selection in the first round in 2005, and aging David Macklin. Neither had an interception until the 12th game. Depth was so horrible that backup FS Aaron Francisco, not a cornerback, became the nickel back. The team needs to add starter quality here and improve the depth.
Although the rushing game showed signs of life late in the year, nobody believes the team has assembled a juggernaut up front. Free agent LT Leonard Davis may be gone. Everyone else, except starting rookie RG Deuce Lutui, is average at best. There will be four positions that easily could, and should, be improved so Edgerrin James doesn't go three months into 2007 before he has a 100-yard game, as he did in 2006.
Cornerback: Antrel Rolle, a 2005 first-round pick, has been disappointing thus far, and it has been an embarrassingly bad tag-team opposite him. The Cardinals did not get an interception from a starting corner until Game 12.
Left tackle: Although QB Matt Leinart is a lefty, making the right tackle his blind-side protector, left tackle remains a critical position, and starter Leonard Davis, a career underachiever, becomes an unrestricted free agent. Six years into his career, Davis, the second pick overall in 2001, has yet to make the Pro Bowl.
Defensive end: With former Pro Bowler Bertrand Berry working from the right side and team sacks leader Chike Okeafor from the left, this wouldn't on the surface appear to be a key need. But Berry, 30, has played only 18 games the past two seasons after his 14.5-sack Pro Bowl season in 2004. He had 12 sacks in those 18 games in 2005 and 2006, but his ability to get through a season now becomes a concern. Okeafor also is 30, although he tied his career high with 8.5 sacks. Depth is an issue.
MEDICAL WATCH: DE Bertrand Berry had surgery on a triceps tear that ended his season at 10 games (six sacks). He played only eight games (also six sacks) in 2005. His ability to complete a season now becomes a concern.
"It's a matter of taking time to rest, recharging the batteries and coming back and doing it again next year," he said. "There won't be any ill effects from this. I'll be ready to get back to helping the team win games."
--QB Matt Leinart, who started 11 games, suffered no structural damage to his left (throwing) shoulder when sacked in Game 15 against Denver. He missed the finale because of the AC joint injury but will not need surgery. However, his right shoulder popped out on a sack in the preseason finale. His shoulders now become a concern, especially behind a line that hasn't exactly distinguished itself.
--All of the others who ended the year on injured reserve -- starters CB David Macklin and PR Troy Walters, and backups LB James Darling, TE Adam Bergen, WR LeRon McCoy, RB Roger Robinson, S Jack Brewer and G Rolando Cantu -- are expected to be healthy and ready when offseason workouts begin.

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