RB Tim Hightower (Getty)
While the majority of attention is geared towards the NFL Draft, the Arizona Cardinals’ official offseason program kicks off this week. With several up and coming players on the roster, the Cardinals are hopeful developing prospects continue to progress and supply Arizona with a growing nucleus of young talent. Brad Wilbricht outlines who could be due for a breakout year in 2009.
The Arizona Cardinals experienced a handful of defections due to free agency but believe they have the necessary pieces in place to pick up right where they left off last season. Several rookies were given time to develop and learn a year ago, instead of being forced into action during their first year in the NFL.
While RB Tim Hightower made a name for himself in 2008, he’ll be counted on even more during his sophomore campaign. Hightower compiled over 600 total yards and scored 10 touchdowns during his rookie season. He took over starting duties from veteran RB Edgerrin James midseason but reverted to a backup role throughout the playoffs.
Due to the unlikelihood of James returning to the desert and the loss of J.J. Arrington to the Denver Broncos, Hightower will enter training camp as the feature back. Newcomer Jason Wright was signed as a potential third-down back but will mostly be utilized on special teams. The Cardinals will likely add a young running back in the draft to help Hightower carry the load.
At wide receiver, Steve Breaston broke out last year and was one of the three Cardinal wideouts to surpass 1,000 yards receiving. This year, WR Early Doucet could follow in Breaston’s footsteps as a second-year standout. Doucet arrived to camp late a year ago and was unable to make an impact due to the emergence of Breaston and Arizona’s Pro Bowl tandem of wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.
Doucet is known around the Cardinals’ organization as a Boldin clone and might be needed to step in for Boldin on the perimeter while Breaston remains in the slot. Boldin’s status in Arizona is still unclear but the situation will almost certainly be addressed by the time of this April’s draft.
On the defensive side of the ball, DE Calais Campbell is one to watch in 2009. Antonio Smith now resides with the Houston Texans, leaving on open spot on the Cardinals’ defensive line. Campbell showed flashes of brilliance last season but was only lightly used in the rotation. DE Kenny Iwebema is also in position for a greater role on the defense this year.
Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor are still capable performers but their best playing days are behind them. Campbell and Iwebema will depended on in the future and look to be major fixtures on the Arizona defense for years to come. Both are versatile enough to play multiple positions along the defensive line and can hold up in the 3-4 defense.
While the loss of LB Monty Beisel to the Kansas City Chiefs isn’t a tremendous blow, he was a dependable backup during his tenure in Arizona. LB Ali Highsmith showed a great deal of promise on special teams in 2008 but his progress was derailed by a midseason injury. With Beisel now out of the picture, Highsmith is a possibility to replace him as the Cardinals’ utility linebacker.
With Karlos Dansby and Gerald Hayes already patrolling the middle of Arizona’s linebacking corps, Highsmith will be able to sit back and learn for a second straight season. However, if he’s called upon, Highsmith will be fully expected to contribute off the bench.
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