Cardinals Limping And Rebuilding

Dennis Green will enter the Metrodome for the first time since his only losing season with the Vikings when he brings his Arizona Cardinals to town for the preseason opener. It will be a team missing two top receivers and struggling for an identity elsewhere.

The Vikings open the 2004 season against the same team that brought their 2003 season to an abrupt, bitter ending — the Arizona Cardinals. While many of the faces from that team remain the same, there are some big changes going on in the Land of the Sun, starting with the head coach.

Former Vikings coach Dennis Green was hired with the assignment to make the Cards a winner — a job previous coaches have struggled to achieve. Green has made some changes and added talent but has many holes to fill. One of them he hopes won't be QB.

Green is convinced third-year pro Josh McCown can be the answer — so much so Green passed on taking a QB with the third pick of the draft and didn't go after a high-profile QB in free agency. McCown looked strong in three starts and showed poise for an inexperienced player. With good arm strength and mobility, Green thinks he can develop McCown into a star. He's likely to get a longer look than most starting QBs in a preseason opener, but the players to watch this time are backups Shaun King and John Navarre. King is a former starter with the Bucs who has grown into a backup role, while Navarre was a seventh-round draft pick in this year's draft who has a chance to win a roster spot.

The running game remains an unresolved issue. While Marcel Shipp was expected to be the go-to back during the season, he suffered an ankle injury late last week that could keep him out for the first month of the regular season or more. Even before Shipp's injury, Green made a point to announce Emmitt Smith as his starter heading into camp. Smith brings a veteran leadership to the Cardinals, but he's a far cry from the running back that terrorized the NFL a few years back. The third-down job is being fought for by speedy Josh Scobey and versatile Damien Anderson, who will compete for limited touches. Arizona also has a pair of strong fullbacks in James Hodgins and former Viking Obafemi Ayanbadejo.

The receiver corps got deeper when the Cards again hit wide receiver hard on draft day. In 2003, the team drafted Bryant Johnson and Anquan Boldin in the first two rounds. Boldin became a Pro Bowler in his first season, setting a rookie record with 101 receptions. So what did Green do with his first pick in 2004? He drafted former Vikings ball boy Larry Fitzgerald. It proved to be a wise choice since Boldin and Johnson are both expected to miss this matchup with injuries, and Boldin could be out until October. Fitzgerald doesn't have top speed, but he catches almost everything thrown his way, has amazing body control and brings down the ball in traffic. He and Boldin could be a dynamic duo for years in this offense. Behind that trio is more depth and talent, with former starter Bryan Gilmore, veteran Karl Williams, third-year man Jason McAddley and Nate Poole — who made the catch last year that knocked the Vikings from the playoffs.

At tight end, the team is also well-stocked with starter Freddie Jones and third-year pro Mike Banks.

Prior to the recent draft binge on wide receivers, the Cardinals invested heavily on the offensive line, with mixed results. Center Pete Kendall was a free agent brought in to be the anchor, but he was released as training camp started, with Green citing chemistry problems. Alex Stepanovich is expected to start in the middle after Green released Pete Kendall, and former Viking Everett Lindsay can add depth all along the line. L.J. Shelton and Leonard Davis were taken in the first round of their respective drafts. Shelton has battled injuries at left tackle and Davis, a former No. 2 overall choice, could be the starter at left tackle. Reggie Wells, a sixth-round draft choice in 2003, could be the starter at left guard. The right side is a mess, with guard Cameron Spikes and tackle Anthony Clement. Both will be challenged for their starting jobs in the preseason — Clement by veteran Raleigh Roundtree, and Spikes by Everett Lindsay.

Defensively, Green has a decent unit up front, with depth and talent in the middle. He has four potential starting defensive tackles in Kenny King, Russell Davis, Wendell Bryant and Darnell Dockett. Green wants speed in the "under" tackle position that John Randle gave him and expects a lot of competition. On the outside, free agent signee Bertrand Berry gives the Cardinals a pass rush component that was missing last year. Left end Kyle Vanden Bosch is the expected starter with Fred Wakefield pushing for time.

As with his Vikings teams, Green finds little depth at linebacker. Outside linebacker Raynoch Thompson and middle linebacker Ronald McKinnon seem safe in their jobs, but there will be plenty of competition for the other outside position, where rookie Karlos Dansby will battle with Levar Fisher and Gerald Hayes for a starting spot. Veteran James Darling is the primary backup at middle linebacker and a very solid role player.

The secondary is a group that has the potential to be great but must stay healthy and work together. Cornerbacks Duane Starks, David Macklin and Renaldo Hill are all potential NFL starters, with former Viking Robert Tate and sixth-year man Coby Rhinehart as the next in line. At safety, former Bucs star Dexter Jackson and Adrian Wilson were a solid starting tandem last year, but Jackson is being pushed by third-year pro Quentin Harris and depth is razor thin.

When the Cardinals come calling for Green's debut, you can bet there will be plenty of emotion, as each team tries to get off to a solid start — the Vikings trying to forget the last time they met the Cards and the Cards trying to build off that same game.

Key Matchup
The Vikings made franchise history in the offseason when they handed cornerback Antoine Winfield the biggest contract for an outside free agent in team history. The objective was simple — get a shutdown cornerback that can take away a team's top receiver and make an opposing offense more one-dimensional.

He'll get that chance early, as the Vikings face the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2004, Larry Fitzgerald. While the Cardinals are missing Anquan Boldin, who caught 101 passes last year and first-rounder Bryant Johnson, Winfield will see Fitzgerald early.

For those unfamiliar with Winfield's style, he is a heavy hitter who punishes wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. He excels at press coverage and, despite giving away almost six inches to the 6-foot-2 Fitzgerald, his leaping ability helps negate his height deficit. When the Vikings match up with teams like the Colts and Eagles during the year, Winfield will likely draw a game-long assignment to clamp down Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens. For a series or two, he'll get a preview with Fitzgerald.

The Cardinals have risked the future by using their last two No. 1 picks and a second-round pick to upgrade at wide receiver. The Vikings have spent millions to fix what many in the organization viewed as their weakest position. Both of these investments will collide head-on when the Vikings meet the Cardinals, making this the matchup to watch.

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