Arizona Cardinals Unit-By-Unit Analysis
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Kurt Warner. Backups -- Matt Leinart, Brian St. Pierre, Tyler Palko.
Warner resurrected his career last year, again, and his skills make this offense go. He has a great understanding of the game and he's very accurate. No one works harder at the mental side of the game, and the Cardinals should be in good shape as long as he stays healthy. Leinart is being viewed by some as a bust, but he really hasn't had much of a chance. He's played in only 16 games but none last year. Leinart has worked very hard the past two years and coaches think he's ready to step in if Warner goes down. St. Pierre has been promised a shot at the No. 2 job, too, but it's Leinart's to lose. Palko is a project.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Tim Hightower, FB Dan Kreider. Backups -- Chris Wells, Jason Wright, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Tim Castille, Justin Green, Chris Vincent.
Hightower and Wells, the first-round pick, will contend for the starting job. Hightower is No. 1 because of his year experience. Hightower is a solid all-round player who can run, catch and block. Wells has special breakaway ability, however, and if he can adapt to the pro game, he will be hard to keep out of the lineup. Wright will be a third-down specialist, and Stephens-Howling, a seventh-round pick, will need to make the team as a special teamer. Castille will battle Kreider for the starting job.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Leonard Pope. Backups -- Stephen Spach, Ben Patrick, Anthony Becht, Dominique Byrd.
Pope is the starter by default. Spach is coming off knee surgery and is questionable for the start of the season. Patrick is suspended for the first four games after violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. If Spach is healthy, he could be the team's best option. He played well late last season but he had ACL surgery in January. Pope has good receiving skills but struggles to block because of his 6-8 frame, and picking up the offense has been a problem. Becht is a sturdy vet who should be the team's blocking tight end. Byrd was out of football last year but looked good this offseason.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin. Backups -- Steve Breaston, Jerheme Urban, Early Doucet, Lance Long, Sean Morey, Onrea Jones, Michael Ray Garvin, Justin Brown.
Fitzgerald might be the best in the game, and Boldin, when healthy, isn't far behind. Fitzgerald lost weight last year, became faster and worked harder than ever in practice. His route running has improved and he's getting more separation from defenders. Boldin is healthy after dealing with a variety of injuries last year. But he'll get hurt again. He plays too hard and is too physical to go 16 games without any bumps and bruises. He's not going to avoid contact that often. He's also mad about his contract, and insiders think he let those issues affect him last season. Still, when he was healthy, Boldin was productive. Breaston was one of the NFL's most improved players last year, and Urban is underrated. He's fast and can play every spot. Doucet, a third-round pick in 2008, will need to show great improvement to be active on game day.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Mike Gandy, LG Reggie Wells, C Lyle Sendlein, RG Deuce Lutui, RT Levi Brown. Backups -- G Elton Brown, G Brandon Keith, G Trevor Canfield, T Herman Johnson, T Elliot Vallejo, T Oliver Ross, C Ben Claxton, T Brandon Pearce, C Donovan Raiola.
There isn't a Pro Bowl player in the group, but the starters are solid. For most of last season, it was an effect pass-blocking group. It was criticized for its run blocking ability but when given the opportunity, the unit was decent. Gandy is a solid vet who sometimes struggles against elite rushers. But who doesn't? Wells might be the team's best lineman. Sendlein struggled last season but he played with a sore shoulder for most of the year and underwent surgery in the offseason. Lutui is massive road grade but he can have mental lapses. Brown is improving but was he worth the fifth overall pick in 2007? It's questionable. Brown is a decent backup and coaches are high on Herman Johnson, a fifth-round selection this year. Ross has played for Whisenhunt and Grimm before so he could give the club a solid vet as a backup.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Darnell Dockett, NT Gabe Watson, RE Calais Campbell. Backups -- NT/DE Bryan Robinson, NT Alan Branch, NT Rodney Leisle, DE Kenny Iwebema, DE Jason Banks, DE/DT Keilen Dykes.
Dockett can be an elite player. He's at his best in big games but doesn't play as well against lesser opponents. Campbell takes over for Antonio Smith, who left via free agency. A second-year player, Campbell is taking a step up. He has talent and at 6-foot-8 can cause problems at the line of scrimmage. Nose tackle is the biggest concern. Watson has dealt with injuries the past two years and Branch is lazy and overweight. Robinson is a savvy vet who can play inside or out and could return as the starting nose tackle. Iwebema is the top backup end but he's coming off surgery that removed a tumor in his chest. He hopes to be ready for the start of camp.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Clark Haggans, OLB Chike Okeafor, ILB Karlos Dansby, ILB Gerald Hayes. Backups -- OLB Cody Brown, OLB Will Davis, OLB Bertrand Berry, LB Victor Hobson, ILB Pago Tagafau, ILB Ali Highsmith, LB Reggie Walker.
Dansby is an elite player who never comes off the field, while Hayes is a thumper inside. The outside 'backers, Okeafor and Haggans, are getting up in age, as is backup Bertrand Berry. That's why the club drafted Davis and Brown, but they are switching from defensive end to outside linebackers. Coaches hope one of them can contribute as a situational pass rusher. There isn't much depth inside, nor is there much size behind Hayes. Depth at all spots is a concern.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Bryant McFadden, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, SS Adrian Wilson, FS Antrel Rolle. Backups -- CB Ralph Brown, CB Greg Toler, CB Michael Adams, CB Wilrey Fontenot, S Keith Lewis, S Rashad Johnson, S Aaron Francisco, S Matt Ware, S Dennis Keyes.
The starting lineup has a chance to be special and there is more depth at all positions than there has been in years. Rodgers-Cromartie is a burgeoning star. McFadden, a free agent from Steelers, bolsters the starting lineup. Wilson is among the best in the game and Rolle showed gradual improvement last year after moving from corner to safety. Brown proved to be a capable backup and he's smart. Toler, a rookie, has great physical skills but will struggle moving from small college ball to the NFL. The Cardinals use as many as four safeties in nickel packages. Johnson was a ball hawk in college who could move into that role.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Neil Rackers, P Ben Graham, LS Mike Leach, PR Steve Breaston, KR Steve Breaston.
Rackers kicked well last year and might be the best in the league in specialty kickoffs: onside, pooch, etc. Graham was signed late in the year and was competent, not great. If he struggles early in preseason, the Cardinals will be shopping. Breaston's punt return production dropped off last year. He plays so much on offense that coaches are considering taking him off punt returns. Antrel Rolle is a breakaway threat but needs to prove he can catch consistently. RB LaRod Stephens-Howling was drafted partly because of his return ability and he'll get a look at both jobs. Michael Ray Garvin is incredibly fast so he will get a look there, too.
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