Cardinals Young And Injured

While Arizona didn't enter training camp with a wealth of talent, some of their best players are now gone to injury in the preseason. That could mean longer looks for the Cardinals' front-line players looking to find team chemistry.

After a preseason that has included three AFC opponents all capable of beating you with veteran players, the Vikings return home for the preseason finale tonight against their first NFC foe. The Arizona Cardinals are a team that has been gutted and is starting anew with many new faces — some young and unfamiliar, some old and familiar — which could very well mean that the Cards will be putting more into this game than the Vikings will.

Even Cardinals fans may have a difficult time recognizing this team, since they're going to have new starters at several key positions on offense, starting with quarterback. After an up-and-down career in Arizona, Jake Plummer is gone and veteran Jeff Blake is the QB for now. His backup, second-year man Josh McCown, is being groomed as his replacement, so any rapport Blake gets with his new receiver corps will likely be short-term instead of long-term, and the quarterback position will continue to be a source of controversy in the Valley of the Sun for some time to come.

The Cards finally admitted that RB Thomas Jones was a bust and let him join former starter Michael Pittman in Tampa Bay. They replaced him with all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith, whose falling-out with the Cowboys led to his signing with the hated former division rival Cardinals. Smith has been asked to bring leadership to the team, if not 1,000 yards rushing. He will get the chance to start early, but many believe Marcel Shipp, the team's leading rusher last year, will get the bulk of the carries as the season wears on. Beyond the two of them, the roster is wide open, as young running backs look to fight for roster spots — which behind Smith and Shipp are wide open.

A year ago, the Cardinals had a solid trio of receivers in David Boston, Frank Sanders and Mar'Tay Jenkins. All three of them are now gone, opening up starting spots and playing time for several players. Second-year man Jason McAddley started eight games last year as a rookie and is penciled as a backup right now. Third-year undrafted free agent Brian Gilmore, injured veteran Larry Foster and first-round rookie Bryant Johnson are competing with McAddley for the other starting spots. Two other receivers — rookie Anquan Boldin and free-agent acquisition Kevin Kasper — are also in the mix and, with solid preseasons, could find themselves in the muddied waters of Cardinals looking to start.

The only set position among the skill players is tight end, where Freddie Jones and Steve Bush return from last year as the top two players.

In a bizarre twist, the strength of the Cardinals line is at guard — a position many coaches feel can be groomed by good line coaches instead of drafting for the position. With former No. 1 pick Leonard Davis and Cameron Spikes, the Cards guards are as solid as anyone position on the offense (but Davis is injured right now). It's the rest of the line that is a problem. Starting tackles L.J. Shelton and Anthony Clement are both former high draft picks, but both have battled injury problems, which could open the door for unproven Kendrick Rogers or Jason Starkey to see playing time — or force Davis to move back to tackle. At guard, Arizona has a decent backup in Chris Dishman, but he isn't viewed as a great option as a full-time starter except in Davis' absence. The center position was a complete mess, but the Cardinals have opted to move former guard Pete Kendall into the spot since veteran Frank Garcia is viewed by most as a legitimate starting NFL center.

Defensively, the Cardinals don't have any depth but have some quality players, especially up front on the line. Tackles Wendell Bryant and Russell Davis are solid, and a lot is expected of rookie DE Calvin Pace and third-year man Kyle Vanden Bosch. Like Leonard Davis on the offensive line, Vanden Bosch is injured too. The problem for the rest of the line is experience. Russell Davis was the only full-time starter from a year ago, and the Cards are set on a young rotation that will also include rookie Kenny King and tackle Barron Tanner. Rotations rarely work in the NFL, but, like so many other positions on this team, the Cardinals may have no other choice.

The linebackers are also thin on depth. MLB Ronald McKinnon and fourth-year pro Raynoch Thompson at OLB are starters, but that's all that is certain. Free agent-signee James Darling of the Eagles will get a chance to unseat Levar Fisher at the weakside linebacker spot or McKinnon in the mddle, but the rest is a combination of talent and promise, but no experience — including rookies Tony Gilbert and Gerald Hayes, second-year man Michael Young and third-year pro LeVar Woods (do you see a common thread running through this team?).

The only area of strength on this team was in the secondary. In a division with the Rams, 49ers and Seahawks, a strong secondary is a must. In 2002, the Cards spent big to snatch CB Duane Starks in free agency. Now an injury has shelved him for the season, too. This year, they grabbed Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson from the Bucs. Starks was expected to start alongside David Barrett, who is expected to beat off challenges from Coby Rhinehart and former starter Renaldo Hill. Now Rhinehart and Hill will fight over Stark's former spot. Jackson heads up a three-man safety crew that is very solid, joining Adrian Wilson and Justin Lucas.

As a team, the Cardinals look like a mess heading into the final preseason game. They have young talent, but too many positions remain up for grabs even at this late date, so while the Vikings give their starters a brief run-through before the season gets going for real, Arizona may have to play the game out. Not just to determine who makes the 53-man roster, but, in many cases, who wins starting jobs.

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