Cardinals 2008 Breakout Stars: Defense

With key free-agent acquisitions and new rookies at their disposal, the Cardinals defense should be much improved this season. While a handful of players have already experienced career seasons, a select few are poised to do the same in 2008. Brad Wilbricht predicts this year's defensive breakout performers in this exclusive.

Defensive End: Antonio Smith

Over the past three seasons, Smith has been a steady performer for the Cardinals defense. He enjoyed his best year as a professional last year, totaling 44 tackles and 5.5 sacks. The addition of multiple newcomers along the defensive line should provide Smith with an extra incentive to perform this season. Smith features a quick burst off the line of scrimmage and is extremely agile. Early in his career, Smith struggled with consistency and mental mistakes. With the help of defensive line coach Ron Aiken, he has drastically improved in both areas. Smith now plays with an enhanced motor and is competitive on every play. While Smith won't be asked to rush the passer as much this season, he could equal his sack total from last year while playing a much bigger role in run support.

Defensive Tackle: Alan Branch

Although Branch currently sits behind DT Gabe Watson on the depth chart, he'll figure heavily into the Cardinals rotation along the defensive line. With Watson recovering from a broken kneecap, Branch will continue receiving extra reps during OTA's and training camp. Branch exhibits tremendous size, strength and quickness. Although he lacks ideal speed, Branch compensates with an impressive motor and above-average stamina. Given Branch's favorable attributes playing in the 3-4 defense, he should dramatically improve his skill-set from his rookie year. In addition, Branch demonstrates outstanding versatility having played defensive end, defensive tackle, and nose tackle. Look for him to be used in a variety of ways by defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

Linebacker: David Holloway

Holloway is currently buried on the depth chart, but could work his way into the rotation during the season. Holloway will battle LB Monty Beisel for the top-backup spot behind starters Karlos Dansby and Gerald Hayes. Holloway is a solid open-field tackler and plays with an extremely high football IQ. Although he lacks prototypical size at inside linebacker, Holloway exhibits a non-stop motor. Additionally, he possesses the bloodlines to contribute at the NFL level. Holloway's father, Brian, was a Pro Bowl linebacker during the 1980's. Holloway's versatility supplies the Cardinals defense with an additional specialist that can be used in several different formations. He has experience lining-up at defensive end and could also be utilized as an edge pass rusher.

Cornerback: Eric Green

Green has been an adequate fixture in the Cardinals secondary, but may be ready to take the next step. During his three-year career, Green has racked up 137 tackles but has intercepted only one pass. Furthermore, he's failed to make an interception since his rookie season in 2005. Green must improve his play-making ability to become a quality starter at the NFL level. While he's been hampered by mental mistakes, Green showed improved awareness last year before suffering a season-ending groin injury. When healthy, Green displays excellent athleticism and speed. In addition, he features flexible hips and can turn and run with the speediest of receivers. If Green can continue to develop his decision-making skills, his production should soar in 2008.

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