Outlook: Something is happening in the desert. It might be something in the water or it might be the warm weather. Whatever it is, head coach Dennis Green has to be happy about it.
The Cardinals are the chic pick in the NFL this year to make the biggest leap, from also-ran to playoff contender. Green has assembled a solid coaching staff, some excellent talent on both sides of the ball and finally he feels he has a signal-caller who can lead this team to their first postseason appearance in seven years.
The team is playing its final season at Sun Devil Stadium and with a change of uniforms, an excellent draft class and several quality free agents signed in the offseason, the future looks bright for the Cardinals. Management, coaches, players and fans alike are hoping that that future is right now.
Quarterbacks: After a tumultuous season in the Big Apple, veteran QB Kurt Warner will try to resurrect his career with the Cardinals. Warner has been gun-shy the past several seasons after suffering with wrist problems in St. Louis and a horrible line with the New York Giants last season.
Warner still throws one of the prettiest deep passes in the league, he's smart and he is tough in the face of a rush. Questions about his durability and decision-making came up last season and it remains to be seen if he still has the magic that led to two league MVP selections.
Heading into camp, Green said that the quarterback job is up for grabs, but the general thought is that it is Warner's job to lose. If he falters at all, standing in the wings is enigmatic Josh McCown who started 13 games last season. Green became frustrated with McCown's costly turnovers and benched him twice during the season, but he was the best of the three quarterbacks on the roster last year.
In 2004, McCown completed 57.1% of his passes for 2.511 yards, 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was sacked 31 times – way too many behind a solid offensive line and with the receivers he had at his disposal. McCown has the talent, but he hasn't shown the ability to lead this team consistently.
Carrying the clip-board is former Michigan Wolverine John Navarre, who started one game in his rookie season. He has a strong arm and he's smart, but he lacks anything resembling mobility and probably won't be anything more than a backup in the league.
Running Backs: Green thinks he may have found his franchise running back in second-round selection J.J. Arrington. The former Cal Bear rushed for over 2,000 yards last season against some very tough competition and he's had a solid camp so far.
Arrington reminds a lot of people of current Tennessee Titan RB Travis Henry, but Green has said his young back needs to get tougher. Arrington is low to the ground, runs well between the tackles and has excellent balance. He also has a burst to the corner and good hands. He will struggle early with his pass-protection duties and that is why it is nice to have an experienced player backing him up in Marcel Shipp.
Shipp missed the entire 2004 season with a broken leg and dislocated ankle. Before his injury he and the now retired Emmitt Smith were neck-and-neck for the starting duties last year, but now he will be a valuable backup to Arrington. He isn't a speed guy, but he runs hard and will be good in short-yardage situations.
Obafemi Ayanbadejo isn't a classic lead-blocking fullback, but he can catch, run and pass-block well.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: The Cardinals are blessed with arguably one of the most talented receiving corps in the entire league. Third-year players Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson combine with second-year standout Larry Fitzgerald all have the abilities to break open games. They need to be more consistent, but they are about as talented as it gets at the wide receiver positions.
Boldin, who missed several weeks with a torn meniscus in his right knee last year, still finished second on the team with 56 receptions and 623 yards. He also had one touchdown. He is fearless, strong and is one of the team's best blockers. He runs well after the catch and, while he doesn't have deep speed, he runs excellent routes which allow him to separate from the defender.
Boldin's focus should be good this season, having inked a long-term extension after a summer of discontent with his contract situation. Last year Boldin played out of position and it showed. As a rookie in 2003, Boldin made the Pro Bowl by catching a rookie-record 101 passes from the slot. Last year, he was asked to play on the outside to permit Fitzgerald to run out of the slot. This year Boldin will be on the inside and Fitzgerald will be in motion.
Fitzgerald, with all of his talents and athleticism, has some work to do. He has unbelievable body-control – reminiscent of former Steelers great Lynn Swan – and good hands. His problem is he lacks ideal deep speed and he doesn't run crisp routes. He was able to dazzle with his acrobatic catches, but that was because he wasn't able to shake the defenders while running his routes. He led the Cardinals with 58 catches, 780 yards and eight touchdowns. With improved route-running, he should be able to post 80 catches, 1,000 yards and ten touchdowns in his second season.
Johnson was the team's most improved player last season. He has the deep speed the other two lack and his hands have improved. Because new offensive coordinator Keith Rowan and Green plan to run a lot of three-receiver sets, Johnson will see plenty of snaps and could be a breakout player in 2005.
Lawrence Hamilton and rookie LeRon McCoy will battle it out during camp for the fourth receiver spot. McCoy has excellent speed, but Hamilton has experience and good hands.
With the departure of Freddie Jones, who never became the receiving threat the team hoped he would be, the team has a lot of question-marks at the tight end position.
Eric Edwards is the only tight end on the roster to have caught a pass in the NFL – a grand total of five – and the team has three challengers to see who will remain on the roster. Aaron Golliday has played a lot in NFL Europe and he is big and athletic. Both Adam Bergen and John Bronson are undrafted free agents so don't be surprised to see the Cardinals scouring the waiver wire before the regular season to find another body to bring in.
Offensive Line: Besides the quarterback position, this is the most pivotal position on the team in 2005. Last year, this group was the most frustrating for Green, but most of those problems were his fault.
He cut well-respected veteran C/G Pete Kendall the day before training camp started and decided to make rookie Alex Stepanovich the starter. He put L.J. Shelton in his doghouse for most of the season even though it appeared to almost everyone that he deserved to be starting and he fired offensive line coach Bob Wiley before the halfway point of the season.
This season could be an adventure as well. At the tackles the Cardinals appear to be set with Leonard Davis and free agent Oliver Ross, signed in the offseason. The middle of the line could be serious trouble.
Stepanovich recently broke his hand and he is expected to miss significant time and with backup Nick Lecky's inexperience, the interior of the line could be a sore spot for the offense.
Last year, the right guard position was a huge weakness along the line and so far this preseason Green has given rookie Elton Brown every chance to win the starting spot. He is battling Jeremy Bridges for playing time, but the smart money is on Brown winning the spot.
For years, Cardinals pundits and fans have proclaimed that Davis is ready to break out and realize his vast potential. Last season, he played left tackle for the first time in his career and he flashed Pro Bowl potential. For a man of his size (6'6", 380) he is surprisingly agile and athletic. He engulfs rushers and is a good run-blocker as well. If he finds the consistency necessary, he could garner Pro Bowl recognition.
LG Reggie Wells started every game last season and proved to be a solid player who could anchor that side of the line.
During the offseason the team signed RT Oliver Ross in free agency and he could prove to be the key to this unit. He is a good pass-blocker and a road-grader on running plays. He is also a solid leader who will allow the Cardinals to be effective running to either side. Ross has struggled with a knee problem during camp and this could be a problem if he doesn't heal in time for the start of the season.
Depth could prove to be an issue as Shelton was cut and would have provided the only experienced talent on the second unit. T Alan Reuber has little in the way of experience while Leckey has zero.
Defensive Line: The free agent acquisition of DE Bertrand Berry proved to be a coup for the Cardinals last year as he immediately made the front four a threat when quarterbacks dropped back to pass.
Berry finished second in the league with 14.5 sacks and became the emotional leader for some of the younger players along the line. He also forced four fumbles and was good against the run as well. Berry plays most downs from the right defensive end position, but defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast doesn't hesitate to move him around so as to get the best match-up along the front.
The free-agent signing of Chike Okeafor could prove to be one of the best offseason moves of any team in the league. Okeafor is an underrated pass-rusher, who has a non-stop motor and is a solid leader. He is usually good for 10 sacks and he will keep teams from constantly double-teaming Berry.
Backing up the two veteran ends will be Calvin Pace, Peppi Zellner and Antonio Smith. Pace has had a breakout camp and added 10 pounds to be able to hold up against the run. He is an excellent compliment to Berry and Okeafor and there should be little fall-off when Pace is in the game.
To go along with an excellent pass-rush off the edge, second-year DT Darnell Dockett and six-year veteran DT Russell Davis provide an outstanding push up the middle. Dockett started every game of his rookie season posting 40 tackles, 3.5 sacks, six tackles for loss, one forced fumble and one interception. He is an excellent "Under-tackle" in the Cardinals defensive scheme and he can collapse the pocket with his speed and quickness.
Davis plays the nose tackle position and he is coming off the best season of his career. He is frequently asked to occupy two-blockers, a job he seems to relish, but he would be even better if he could take a few series off during the game and the Cardinals may have someone to do just that in veteran Kenny King.
King missed all of 2004 with a wrist injury, but he has added over 20 pounds to his frame to hold up on the inside. He is listed behind Dockett, but he can play any position along the line, including end.
Linebackers: Pendergast prefers speed over size in his linebackers and he has an athletic group that flies to the ball and loves to hit.
The team suffered a blow when projected middle linebacker Gerald Hayes went down with a knee injury that will cause him to miss at least the first five weeks of the season. Hayes is a big-hitter who can run to ball and is above-average in coverage. He sometimes lets his emotions get the better of him and has a tendency to over-pursue, but he is a playmaker that will be missed.
In Hayes' stead will be veteran James Darling who is limited in his range, but is a solid tackler and good leader. He can play all three linebacker positions and his experience at directing the nickel defense last year will be a key in 2005.
Strongside linebacker Karlos Dansby has all of the makings of being a star. He just needs to put it all together. He is big, strong, athletic and he possesses long arms and the
speed to be an effective blitzer. In his rookie season, Dansby finished with 54 tackles, five sacks, forced one fumble and had an interception as well. If he continues to improve, he will have his ticket punched for Honolulu in the very near future.
Orlando Huff was signed in free-agency from Seattle where he played in the middle. For the Cardinals, Huff is projected as the weakside linebacker and he should be able to succeed in a scheme where he can run and make plays. Huff isn't very good in coverage and doesn't take on blockers well, but the Cardinals' defensive scheme doesn't ask the weakside backer to drop into zones very much.
The backups are also pretty talented as well. Rookie Darryl Blackstock, who Green has compared athletically to Dansby, is a very talented player who could be starting on the outside sooner rather than later. He has had a good camp and will push the starters for time.
Another rookie, Lance Mitchell will provide solid depth on the inside, while Isaac Keys and Eric Johnson battle it out on the outside.
Defensive Backs: This area could be the most improved position on the team this season, if everything falls into place. First-round selection Antrel Rolle should prove to be one of the best defensive backs to ever don a Cardinals jersey if he lives up to all of the hype.
He's had a solid training camp and even though he doesn't have great speed, but he has excellent ball skills and he is a playmaker.
On the other side will be veteran David Macklin who came over from the Indianapolis Colts last season. He is a tough competitor, who won't back down from anyone and when he is beaten, he forgets that play quickly. Macklin finished with 71 tackles, one sack, four interceptions and 16 pass-breakups.
The starter at strong safety, Adrian Wilson, may be the most underrated defensive player in the entire league. He missed the Pro Bowl, but that wasn't his fault. He led the team with 100 tackles and posted one sack, two forced fumbles, three interceptions and 11 passes defensed. He is a good tackler, hard hitter and an energetic player who motivates his teammates.
This unit also saw some veteran talent added in free agency when Green-favorite Robert Griffith was signed. Griffith has lost a step or two, but he makes up for it with smarts and grit. At 34, he will be expected to be the coach on the field. He takes over for Ifeanyi Ohalete who will be the backup.
Pendergast has hinted that Griffith and Wilson may switch places at times, to take advantage of Griffith's tackling ability closer to the line and Wilson's athleticism in the deep middle.
Problems may arise if any of the starters miss significant time. Rookie Eric Green and journeyman Robert Tate are the third and fourth corners, but neither is anything special at this point. Rookie free agent, Ernest Shazor could make this team and play a prominent role at either safety spot.
Special Teams: K Neil Rackers has a big leg and, even more important, he proved to be reliable in pressure situations last year. He made 22 of 29 kicks including 5 of 9 from beyond 50 yards.
P Scott Player could make a promising defense even better if he continues his consistent ways of pinning teams deep in their own territory. He was able to drop 32 of his punts inside the 20-yard line and he gets excellent hangtime.
With the speed at linebacker and the youth on defense the coverage units should be well above-average.
The only negative on this unit are the returners. The release of RB Josh Scobey during camp took away one of the likely candidates to return kicks. Rolle has returned punts before, but the coaches probably won't risk him on returns.
Final Projection: It's hard to believe, but the Cardinals are an up-and-coming team who could take the league by storm this season. Warner's presence could be the needed cog in an offense that has a lot of playmakers at the skill positions.
On defense, the Cardinals should be a top ten unit and with added experience to some of the young studs, the defense could make things easier on their offense.
The concerns are the offensive line and the overall health of the team. They still aren't deep in the secondary, but if they remain healthy they have the athletes to cause a lot of problems.
It's hard not to buy into all of the Cardinals' hype so far, but until they prove it on the field, they are still the third best team in the division. They will push the Seahawks and Rams this fall and with a couple of breaks and standout performances from some key players, they could be post-season bound for the first time in six years.
Scott Eklund writes and reports for Seahawks.NET and Dawgman.com. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com.
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