Camp Comes To an End, Battles Don't

Jason Harris has been in Flagstaff all camp long bringing back all the tiffs, scrapes and everything in between. In his final camp installment, he breaks down each of the top battles and how they panned out up to the final day. Tim Hightower is much more than we thought he was, Matt Leinart runs supreme, the fullback race was no longer in the backfield and Anquan Boldin is as advertised.

QB Crisis No Longer

The quarterback battle is by far the most publicized competition in camp, and with good reason. The Cardinals will only go as far as their quarterback takes them. The obvious question, whose it going to be?

The first round draft pick in his third year, Matt Leinart, or two- time NFL MVP and Super Bowl champ Kurt Warner? It sounds easy after mentioning Warner's accolades but it has been more than six years since reaching those achievements. After stepping in last year for an injured Leinart, Warner showed he is still very capable of success in the NFL.

Leinart is healthy and has played well in the preseason so far. He the highest paid Cardinal which leads most to believe he will be the starter on opening day, unless of course he gets hurt or struggles against the Raiders on Saturday. Both have performed well in camp. There is no doubt Warner can still play, which will make for one of the better quarterback duos in the league.

Free agent, third-sting quarterback Brian St. Pierre has played well this summer. He knows where to go with the football. He's accurate, completing 72 percent of his passes in two preseason games with the Cardinals. St. Pierre is a solid No. 3 and worth keeping around for the season.

Ground Game High on Hightower

It's no secret Edgerrin James may not be the running back he once was, but that doesn't mean he wasn't working hard this off-season to be that same guy. James showed good hands and excellent vision throughout camp. He looks ready to have another 1,000 yard season.

If anything were to happen to James, rookie Tim Hightower has shown he is worthy of being the back up. A diamond in the rough, fifth-round pick Hightower ran long time, Cardinal Marcel Shipp out of town, and forced J.J. Arrington into a limited role in the Cardinals backfield. Hightower has a nose for the end zone, scoring the only two rushing touchdowns of the preseason. When he isn't scoring in games, he is scoring in practice. His mix of speed, strength and sheer determination make him a goal line threat.

As for Arrington, he will be used as a return guy, after breaking a kickoff 78 yards. His ability to catch the ball will have him seeing time as the third down back.

Full of Late Competition

The fullback battle has really heated up as of late. Mostly because Tim Castille showed what he was capable of, last week against the Chiefs. He pulled down four receptions for 45 yards and a touchdown. Know for his hands he is putting the pressure on veteran Terrelle Smith, who is in his second year with the Cardinals.

It comes down to what style of football Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt wants to play. Smith is an excellent blocker and a large part of why Edge gained 1,000 yards last year but you can't deny Castille's ability to speed the defense out. This is one of the most intriguing, late developing competitions in camp. Watch for the final two preseason games to decide this one.

Go Wide

Whatever problems Anquan Boldin and the Cardinals are having with his contract, it isn't showing on the field. Since coming back last week from straining his hamstring on the second day of camp, Boldin has done nothing but perform. He is as advertised. A physical, Pro Bowl receiver who welcomes contact and has the ability to rip balls away from defenders. He should have a successful season a long side fellow Pro Bowler, Larry Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald is one of the most dangerous deep ball receivers in the league. His size and speed make it impossible for small or slow defenders to keep him out of the end zone, almost always a mismatch, even when he is double teamed.

Even though he signed a big contract to start the year, he practices like he's trying to make the team. He lies out or goes up for everything thrown near him. But enough with what we already know. The big question is who will be the three and so on down the line.

Steve Breaston has all but locked up the third spot after leading the Cardinals in receptions with six this pre-season. Unless he gets hurt he should be a solid third receiver. He gets a lot of balls thrown his way in practice and that could mean big things for him and the Cardinals this year.

Rookie receiver Early Doucet is still in the mix as well. A third-round pick, Doucet was an instant upgrade to the Cardinals passing early in training camp. Unfortunately he was injured mid camp. Now healthy and back on the field, he has picked up where he left off. At 211 pounds, Doucet uses his strength on short routes to get himself open. He has speed but his size is what should help move the chains.

In his second year with the Cardinals Jerheme Urban is showing he deserves play time. Much like Breaston, Urban has a better understanding of Whisenhunt's offense and there for, a better chance of seeing action. Urban is 6'3 but plays even bigger. He uses his body to block defenders and has reliable hands.

The Cardinals are extremely deep at wide receiver. Jamaica Rector has been turning heads in Flagstaff since camp started. He has even had a nice pre-season which should keep him from getting cut, unfortunately he won't see too much time unless something happens. The only other receiver to catch a ball this preseason is Sean Morey.

Morey was big on special teams last year and the coaches know it. He should be in the return mix. Lance Long also deserves a mention. He has caught a lot of ball and practice and has the ability to stretch the field. At 5'11 his size may be his down fall.

Not a Tight Situation

In his second year, Ben Patrick was pushing Leonard Pope to be the starter. The key word, was. Patrick suffered a high ankle sprain against the Chiefs and won't return until the start of the season at the earliest. Patrick filled in for Pope at the end of last season and was solid. His role had be expanded in camp until he hurt himself. He should still be a receiving threat once the season starts.

Pope at times looks like the dominating, 6'8" red zone threat he is capable of being. At other times he looks like a guy who injured himself last year. Sometimes he's making big plays in practice, other times he is falling down. As long as he stays health he should be a big target down the middle of the field.

Offensive Line Not So Grimm

In their second year, under O-line coach Russ Grimm, the offense line should improve on one of the better seasons had by a Cardinals line last year. They allowed the least amount of sacks as a team since 1978. The entire line returns. This should mean big things for a team trying to implement more zone blocking, which better suits the vision of the Cardinals backfield. As a unit they have size, strength and youthful legs.

Injuries have been the big story. That's pretty normal for linemen. Starting center Al Johnson went down early in camp and Lyle Sendlein stepped in and stepped up. He has played solid to this point. The experience he is getting should make him an excellent back up when Johnson comes back in a few weeks.

The only major battle for a starting spot is at right guard between former second-round draft pick Deuce Lutui and Elton Brown who was selected by the Cardinals a year earlier in the fourth round. this one won't be decided till the end of pre-season. Both show flashes of what the coaches are looking for.

Brown has been more consistent. Look for both to get plenty of play time this year if injuries continue to be an issue.

This year's seventh-round pick Brandon Keith has been a standout. His size is ideal at 6'5" and 340 plus pounds. Look for him to be in the mix too if anyone goes down.

Defensive Line Gets Most Improved

The defensive line may be the most improved position during the off-season. Arizona signed free agent Bryan Robinson, who is most likely going to start or split time with Alan Branch, for the injured Gabe Watson who has been on the Physically unable to perform list sine camp opened. Adding youth, the Cardinals drafted defensive ends Calais Campbell and Kenny Iwebama. Campbell is huge at 6'8" weighing more than 280 pounds. What made him a second round draft pick was his speed and agility. He his quick off the ball and has the ability to bull rush or spin with ease. Iwebama may be a draft day gem after watching his strength and motor in practice. He never stops.

Veterans Darnell Dockett, Antonio Smith and Joe Tafoya all continue to improve as well. Tafoya has two sacks this pre-season. Dockett didn't practice for a few days but he has since come back with no issues.

Linebackers Locked In

The defense should be solid, thanks in part to one of the meanest and deepest line backing cores in the league. The additions of free agents Clark Haggans and Travis LaBoy in the off-season adds instant pass rush credibility to the Cardinals 3-4 scheme. Both competing for time the starters are even more dangerous. Bertrand Berry, Karlos Dansby, a healthy Chike Okeafor and Gerald Hayes make for a large and in-charge group of linebackers. These isn't much to be said. They average more than 250 pounds and can run. Opposing ball carriers should be afraid, very afraid.

Tweener DE/LB rookie Chris Harrington has looked good in practice and should eventually become a strong back up or starter in the league. He is big and not afraid to take on blocks. Undrafted Ali Highsmith has been a top performer so far in the Pre-season. He leads the team with nine solo tackles and should be a nice addition to an already deep core.

Corners, Ro' Cro Can Tackle

All eyes were on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to start camp. The Cardinals first round draft pick showed he was worth the pick. A Div. II standout, Rodgers-Cromartie routinely intercepts balls and takes them the other way in practice.

The real question to start camp was could he be physical. It took one pre-season for Rodgers-Cromartie to smash Saints tight end Mark Campbell. Campbell got up checking his mouth. Rodgers-Cromartie is the real deal and should be in the mix to start if veteran Roderick Hood or Eric Green struggle early.

Free agent cornerback Ralph Brown has been solid and is getting along with teammates. After dropping a pick, Hood joking walked on to the field telling Brown to do his push ups. The secondary laughed, Brown did his push-ups, and then they all slapped hands. A good team chemistry should translate to good communication between the secondary.

Travarous Bain is a name you may not know, but if you've been to Cardinals training camp this year, you've heard his name. The players and coaches are all routing for Bain. Deep on the depth chart, anytime he makes a play everyone cheers. He does have the ability to run and jump with Fitzgerald which is special. He just needs to be in the right place a little more. If he doesn't make the team he should be on the practice squad.

Safety In Numbers

Before corner turned safety Antrel Rolle got hurt, he was a very versatile part of the defense. He can cover like a corner but hits like a safety. He was playing safety during base defense but was also working at corner during nickel and dime packages. He was able to participate the last day of camp which is good news for Cardinal Nation.

Adrian Wilson is healthy and doing what he does best, hitting people. Even if it is practice and he isn't supposed to, it's good to see last years mid season injury hasn't set him back. A healthy Wilson should allow the defense to present opposing offenses with more looks than last year.

Aaron Francisco has seen a lot of reps in camp. If he can improve his pass coverage in the last two pre-season games he should be the safety when Rolle moves to corner during certain situations. He is physical and has a nose for the ball. He intercepted a lot of ball in camp but so far has struggled during the pre-season.

Just For Kicks

Kicker Neil Rackers has come under fire after missing an extra point and booting a kickoff out of bounds last week. The holder, punter Dirk Johnson took the blame for the extra point, saying he spun the ball and it fell. the kickoff on the other hand, Rackers has nobody to blame but himself. He has been accurate in camp and these mental mistakes should be few and far between.

It is after all, what the pre-season is for. After missing clutch field goals last year, Rackers is on a short leash.

Even shorter is the leash of Dirk Johnson. Johnson still has to prove himself to the coaches and fans. If he doesn't get the job done, he will be replaced.


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