WR Larry Fitzgerald (Kevin Cox/Getty)
The Arizona Cardinals struggled down the stretch, but managed to turn it around and are playing their best football of the year. The Cardinals were unable to defeat a worthy team during the second half of the season but have knocked off two straight playoff opponents. Arizona’s newfound postseason success has its fan base energized but do the Cards have staying power? Brad Wilbricht explains.
While there's still plenty of football to be played this year, there will be many questions answered during the upcoming offseason. The Arizona Cardinals have assembled a tremendous core of young talent and should continue to gain strength in the coming years. Their starting lineup on both sides of the ball averages just 26 years of age and they’ve acquired sufficient depth at nearly every position.
The Cardinals’ offense features several dynamic playmakers and is a serviceable running game away from being one of the best units in the league. Given the skills that rookie RB Tim Hightower has displayed in his first season, Arizona’s ground game is on the right track. Look for GM Rod Graves to upgrade the offensive line and add a running back to complement Hightower. With veteran RB Edgerrin James likely headed out of town, this will be a crucial area to address.
Another key cog on offense will be the status of WR Anquan Boldin. Although Boldin has suffered through multiple injuries this year, there are few wide receivers in the NFL with his versatility and toughness. Just two games removed from a broken jaw, Boldin was back out on the field performing at his usual Pro Bowl level. If Boldin follows through with his desire to leave the desert, the Cardinals have a contingency plan in place with wide receivers Steve Breaston and Jerheme Urban chomping at the bit to start opposite of WR Larry Fitzgerald .
WR Anquan Boldin
While most of the offense is still in their youth, QB Kurt Warner is winding down his playing career. Given the success Warner has experienced over the past two seasons, it will be hard to let him go. The Cardinals’ front office must assess QB Matt Leinart’s future with the organization and determine if he’s included in their long-term plans. If he’s not, look for Warner to be re-signed to another multi-year contract while Arizona turns back to the draft in order to find his heir apparent.
Along the offensive line, C Lyle Sendlein and RG Deuce Lutui appeared to be weak links earlier this season but both are coming into their own this postseason. With what’s expected to be a thin group of centers and guards coming out of the college ranks, Sendlein and Lutui have an excellent chance of remaining in the starting lineup next year. Both players are under the age of 25 and should continue to develop under the guidance of offensive line coach Russ Grimm.
On defense, the Cardinals may have a few voids to fill but their starting lineup averages less than 25 years of age and the majority is under multi-year contracts. Rookie CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has already progressed into a number one cornerback and should develop into one of the NFL’s best shutdown corners. Safeties Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle are ball-hawks in the secondary and will contribute even greater if Arizona’s pass rush continues to flourish.
The major decision on the defensive side of the ball will be what happens with LB Karlos Dansby. He was tagged as the team’s franchise player following last season and Arizona must determine if he’ll be signed to a long-term deal. Dansby is an outstanding performer in space but has trouble shedding opposing blockers at times. Depending on the free-agent crop of linebackers and potential draft prospects, Dansby could be deemed replaceable.
LB Karlos Dansby
As the Cardinals carry on with their transition to the 3-4 defense, they’ll attempt to bring in athletic outside linebackers that can be relied upon in pass defense and rush the quarterback. Additionally, they’ll look to acquire defensive ends that can hold their own against the run. DE Antonio Smith will be an unrestricted free agent at they end of the year and could be playing himself into a lucrative contract that the team will be unable to match.
With a stable coaching staff now in place and with the organization’s recent commitment towards locking up key players, Arizona should be a much more attractive free agent destination than in recent years. While they certainly look to have a firm grasp on the NFC West over the next handful of years, only time will tell if the Cardinals can evolve into a perennial contender.
Brad Wilbricht can be contacted at email@example.com