Arizona Cardinals 2008 Preview Report

Larry Fitzgerald

By Andy Benoit, www.NFLTouchdown.com

Predicted: 2nd

2007 Record: 8-8 (2nd NFC West)

Head Coach: Ken Whisenhunt (2nd season)

*rookie

**new veteran

ROSTER QUICK VIEW

Offense

QB: Matt Leinart

Talented passer but unproven leader. Has yet to live up to his own celebrity.

RB: Edgerrin James

Coming off a 1,200-yard season but lack of burst kept his average carry well under four yards.

FB: Tim Castille

Lacking in experience but was able to take starting job from veteran Terrelle Smith.

WR: Larry Fitzgerald

Led the NFC in receptions and yards in 2007. Not a stretch to argue that he’s the game’s best WR.

WR: Anquan Boldin

Preeminent possession receiver in football. Wants a new contract but will first have to regain his 1,000-yard form. He will.

TE: Leonard Pope

Terrific size makes him viable in the red zone. Must bounce back from a severe ankle injury.

LT: Mike Gandy

Serviceable as long as he’s surrounded by solid players.

LG: Reggie Wells

Versatility is a plus. Cards love to pull him play side in the run game.

C: Al Johnson

Decent middle-man who finishes his blocks. Lack of strength, however, can be an issue.

RG: Deuce Lutui

Technique leaves something to be desired, but the bottom line is he gets the job done.

RT: Levi Brown

Already the key to the front five. Once he figures out the pro game, he’ll be a perennial Pro Bowler.

—————

QB: Kurt Warner

Thirty-seven years old, but didn’t come back to be a No. 2.

RB: Marcel Shipp

Decent backup who can hold down the fort in a bind.

WR: Early Doucet*

Lacks speed and pizzazz. Still, Cards hope he can be Bryant Johnson’s replacement in the slot.

WR: Steve Breaston

Return specialist who may see more time on offense after an impressive offseason.

TE: Jerame Tuman

Was a blocking specialist under Ken Whisenhunt in Pittsburgh.

OL: Elton Brown

Saw time at RT last year, but his limitations give him enough problems at G.

Defense

DL: Antonio Smith

Effective when energized. Oh, and when lining up near the edges.

NT: Gabe Watson

Effort issues from college have not carried over, thankfully. Still, hasn’t been able to draw double teams at the pro level.

DL: Darnell Dockett

Career-high nine sacks in ’07 but just one in the second half of the season. Pro Bowl impact when he maintains separation.

DE/OLB: Bertrand Berry

Coming off torn triceps; has finished the last three seasons on Injured Reserve.

SILB: Gerald Hayes

Fast and decisive when he’s able to sniff a play. Underrated.

WILB: Karlos Dansby

Playing on one-year franchise deal. Not explosive, but remarkably solid all-around.

DE/OLB: Chike Okeafor

Coming back from torn biceps tendon, may have trouble keeping his job from Travis LaBoy or Clark Haggans.

CB: Roderick Hood

Has earned his money thus far but could stand to show more consistent focus.

SS: Adrian Wilson

A Swiss Army Knife-type star who should regain his form after heel surgery. This defense needs him.

FS: Antrel Rolle

Struggled at CB but has the cover skills to thrive at FS. Question is, does he have enough strength as a tackler?

CB: Eric Green

Very physical. Criticized for not registering many interceptions. Few realize how good of a stopper he is.

—————

DE: Calais Campbell*

Rare length should make him a factor as a DE in 3-4 or a DT in 4-3.

DT: Alan Branch

Carbon copy of Gabe Watson, only with slightly less power and durability.

LB: Clark Haggans**

Familiar with playing in a 3-4 after spending his first eight years in Pittsburgh.

NB: Dominique Rodger-Cromartie*

4.29 speed and nice ball skills make him the potential playmaking CB that this defense has lacked since Aeneas Williams.

Key Acquisitions

CB Michael Adams (FA)

LB Clark Haggans (Pit)

DE Travis LaBoy (Ten)

DL Bryan Robinson (Cin)

QB Brian St. Pierre (Pit)

LB Matt Stewart (Cle)

TE Jerame Tuman (Pit)

Key Losses

DL Rodney Bailey (FA)

P Mitch Berger (FA)

LB Darryl Blackstock (Cin)

DT Chris Cooper (Sea)

S Terrence Holt (Car)

LB Brandon Johnson (Cin)

WR Bryant Johnson (SF)

LB Calvin Pace (NYJ)

QB Tim Rattay (FA)

OT Oliver Ross (NE)

G Keydrick Vincent (Car)

The 31-year-old Haggans is a downgrade at OLB, but the cap-strapped Cardinals couldn’t afford to overpay Pace. It’s unlikely that LaBoy–who has been a 4-3 DE his entire career–will have a huge impact. Vincent and Ross were both former Steelers whom Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt allowed to leave. This puts a dent in Arizona‘s depth up front, but neither player had been performing well enough to start. Holt was mediocre and became expendable when Antrel Rolle moved from CB to FS. They’ll miss Johnson early on.

Neither Antrel Rolle nor Eric Green has become a playmaker at CB, so the hope is that Rodgers-Cromartie can validate the old saying, “third time’s a charm.” Campbell needs to improve his technique in order to start. He’s 6’8″ and has the wingspan of a Pterodactyl, which, at the very least, should enable him to disrupt passing lanes. Doucet lacks glamour, but they only need him to fill the slot. Coaches like Iwebema and Hightower, though neither is likely to make a significant contribution in ’08.

Rd Sel # Player Position School

1 16 D. Rodgers-Cromartie CB Tennessee State

2 50 Calais Campbell DE Miami (Fla.)

3 81 Early Doucet WR Louisiana State

4 116 Kenny Iwebema DE Iowa

5 149 Tim Hightower RB Richmond

6 185 Chris Harrington DE Texas A&M

7 225 Brandon Keith T Northern Iowa

Neither Antrel Rolle nor Eric Green has become a playmaker at CB, so the hope is that Rodgers-Cromartie can validate the old saying, “third time’s a charm.” Campbell needs to improve his technique in order so start. He’s 6’8″ and has the wingspan of a Pteranodon, which, at the very least, should enable him to disrupt passing lanes. Doucet lacks glamour, but they only need him to fill the slot. Coaches like Iwebema and Hightower, though neither is likely to make a significant contribution in ’08.

2008 Arizona Cardinals Preview Report

Try all you want:you won’t succeed. It can’t be done. You can be a fan of the game, student of the game, historian of the game, whatever. It doesn’t matter. You still can’t figure out these Arizona Cardinals. Nobody can. It’s impossible. They’re too ambiguous. They’re football’s embodiment of the word maybe. They’re the 20 minutes of time you have to kill. They’re the girl who gives you her number and then never returns your call.

Start with Arizona‘s record from last season: 8-8. Their PR department touts it as the team’s first non-losing season since 1998 (actually, they’re calling it their first “.500 or better season” since 1998). The plain-speak department touts it as the epitome of mediocrity. The Cardinals were 3-3 against clubs with winning records last year and 5-5 against everyone else. They went 2-2 in the first quarter of the season and 2-2 in the fourth quarter.

Given this team’s pathetic history, 8-8 is probably a building block. But still, what are they building? Second-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt is the project manager–we know that. But are we looking at groundbreaking construction or a remodeling project? Are the Cardinals building for this year or for years to come?

Starting quarterback Matt Leinart is only 25 years old and in just his third season. This makes him the foundation, right? Okay, so then what is that 37-year-old former Super Bowl champion and league MVP doing over there? Don’t say he’s a veteran backup or mentor–everybody saw Kurt Warner lead this team with 3,417 yards passing last season. And everybody knows that not all of those yards came after Leinart’s season ended with a dislocated shoulder. No, the young and the old were sharing snaps last season. And look at these recent minicamps:.they’re still sharing snaps! What do we make of that?

Never mind–we’ll discuss it later. What about the defense? Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s unit ranked 17th in yards last year–more ambiguity, by the way–and heads into this season as both a 4-3 and 3-4 unit. When the Cardinals are in a 4-3, you notice how callow their run stoppers are (mainly Gabe Watson and Alan Branch). When they’re in a 3-4, you notice how worn their pass-rushers look (mainly Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor). Put all this together and you get a bundle of questions that the front office has been frantically trying to answer these past few years. Again, we’ll discuss this in more detail later.

One thing that isn’t ambiguous is that this franchise’s problems–four playoff appearance in 47 years–have come from the top down. Bill Bidwell has long been vilified as the worst owner in football. For decades, Bidwell refused to fully invest in the franchise that he once inherited from his father. Recently, revenue from the palatial University of Phoenix Stadium, and tighter rules against thriftiness brought forth by the NFL’s latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, appear to have sparked some life into Bidwell and his organization. Including the preseason, the Cardinals have played in front of 20 consecutive home sellout crowds. They just set a new attendance record last year. Bidwell has written more checks, which is why the team no longer has such an embarrassing free agent deficit.

Still, there’s something a little unsettling about the whole thing. There is no evidence suggesting the new stadium isn’t doing for the Cardinals what oil is doing for the Russians. Fresh money–man’s greatest masking agent–is pouring in. But it’s still going to largely the same people who are operating under the same bleak history. Who’s to say they know what they’re doing?

The Cardinals were one of the few teams to be financially strapped under the inflated $116.8 million salary cap this past offseason. They wanted to sign guard Alan Faneca but lacked the funds to give the idea any realistic consideration. They saw former first-round pick Calvin Pace finally blossom after learning a new hybrid outside linebacker role. Then they saw him leave for $22 million in guarantees from the Jets. They wound up paying $7.5 million in guarantees to Pace’s replacement, Travis LaBoy (a downgrade, as the less athletic LaBoy is essentially in the same position Pace was prior to last season).

These are just the small potatoes. Look at Larry Fitzgerald’s situation this past March and you’ll see the meat of a real potential problem. Fitzgerald agreed to a new four-year, $40 million deal. Prior to his new contract, he was due to count an astronomical $16.4 million against the cap. Unlike most clubs, Cardinals management does not put voidable years at the end of contracts for their early-round rookies. Instead they use escalator clauses. This means the Fitzgerald problem will repeat itself when Antrel Rolle’s contract nears its end, and again when Levi Browns’s deal starts to run out.

In the meantime, four of Arizona’s best players–Darnell Dockett, Anquan Boldin, Adrian Wilson and Karlos Dansby–all requested new contracts this past offseason. The team wasn’t able to accommodate any of them. (Dockett and Boldin are both Drew Rosenhaus guys and eschewed the offseason workouts.) Chances are, at least one of these four, and probably two, will have to wait until next year as well, unless Arizona is willing to lose starting cornerback Eric Green and starting defensive end Antonio Smith in free agency.

But keep in mind, these are all talented players that we’re talking about. Maybe things aren’t so ambiguous. General Manager Rod Graves has done a pretty decent job of drafting during his six-year tenure. And don’t overlook the respect that Whisenhunt and his staff have garnered since arriving last winter. All in all, maybe 8-8 isn’t so bad. Maybe it is a good building block. Recall the words of capitalism father Adam Smith: “On the road from the City of Skepticism, I had to pass through Ambiguity.”

Of course, Smith lived in a time before quarterbacks.


Offense

The only way Matt Leinart can have any less job security is if they somehow find a way to outsource quarterbacking. In his third year out of USC, the former Heisman Trophy winner is currently known more as a celebrity than as a quarterback, especially after taking a step back in 2007. Prior to separating his left shoulder in Week 5, Leinart was completing just 53.6 percent of his passes. He had four interceptions and two touchdowns and was so uncomfortable in Ken Whisenhunt’s new offense that the head coach actually pulled him in two-minute situations. Being a quarterback and sitting out the hurry up offense is akin to being a lawyer and sitting out the closing arguments.

No matter how many “right things” Leinart might say, there is nothing powerful enough to hide the look of self doubt and angst that riddles his face every time he’s told to ride the bench. A remedy for the situation–and all of Leinart’s struggles, for that matter–is for the quarterback to a.) gain a better understanding of the offense, b.) do a better job of reading defenses and c.) become more of a leader. All three are hard to do from the sideline.

Whisenhunt–who, keep in mind, was with Pittsburgh when Leinart was drafted–is notoriously hard on young passers (ask Ben Roethlisberger). This isn’t lost on Kurt Warner. The 11th-year veteran refrained from retiring and told friends that he wanted to continue his career as long as he has an opportunity to start. Since leaving St. Louis, the issue with Warner has been his lack of escapability and poor ball security. However, under new offensive line coach Russ Grimm, the Cardinals surrendered just 24 sacks last season, ranking sixth in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per play. Not under constant pressure, Warner produced a passer rating of 89.8.

If given time to throw, Warner is obviously capable of picking apart a defense. In order to keep his job, Leinart must prove himself in this sense. It helps having Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin as his targets. The fifth-and sixth-year receivers are in the heart of their prime. Fitzgerald is coming off his second 100-catch season in three years after leading the NFC with 1,409 yards receiving. Aside from needing to be more physical–something the coaching staff has been on him about–Fitzgerald is without a serious flaw. The same is true for Boldin, a superlative possession receiver when healthy. Both men have great size and football IQ, which makes them a frightening duo that can hurt you anywhere on the field.

Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley do not use as many spread formations as Denny Green, which is why the Cardinals felt they could allow Bryant Johnson to walk. Third-round rookie Early Doucet will be given an opportunity to claim the No. 3 wideout job, though his lack of speed makes him essentially a vanilla version of the two starters. Don’t be surprised if return specialist Steve Breaston winds up capturing the slot duties.

Tight end Leonard Pope is a monstrous target (6’8″, 258) but it’s uncertain whether he’ll be able to bounce back from a dislocated ankle sustained last December. With former Steeler Jerame Tuman being brought in strictly for his run-blocking, it’s possible you’ll see second-year pro Ben Patrick, a fluid seventh-rounder from Delaware, crack the starting lineup this fall.

What makes Arizona’s aerial prowess all the more impressive is the absence of threat presented by the rushing attack. Running back Edgerrin James, a consummate professional, is coming off a 1,200-yard season. However, at 29 and having logged 2,849 carries in his career, James has the explosiveness of an incense stick. He has only four runs over 20 yards since arriving in the desert, his longest going for only 27.

Don’t expect Arizona to improve their 29th-ranked rushing offense much in ’08. James will handle another heavy load. Backup Marcel Shipp has been around for years and has never been a huge difference-maker. Disappointing former second-round pick J.J. Arrington lacks the patience to be a reliable contributor, particularly in the passing game. Fifth-round rookie Tim Hightower is tenacious but doesn’t offer the game-changing speed that this offense still needs at running back.

The front five has long been Arizona’s bugaboo. However, with Russ Grimm’s guidance and a finally-stabilized starting unit, signs of actual, positive change have started to flicker. Most of the flickers are coming from the right side, where second-year monster Levi Brown mans the tackle position. The fifth-overall pick from Penn State is the lynchpin up front. Blessed with 6’5″, 322-pound size and conceivably every natural gift they say you can’t teach, Brown could begin attracting Pro Bowl consideration as soon as this season. Right now, the Cardinals are being cautious about throwing too much on his plate. If they thought Brown was mentally prepared to handle a complex load, they’d play him next to versatile veteran guard Reggie Wells (the fulcrum of their run-blocking efforts). Instead, Brown is next to sloppy but effective third-year pro Deuce Lutui, while Wells occupies the left side, next to the serviceable but unspectacular Mike Gandy. In between everyone is center Al Johnson, a player who seems to typify Arizona’s offensive line. Johnson is a hard worker who can play multiple positions, but he’s hindered by a lack of power.

The Cardinals will be especially dependent on having a cohesive starting five in 2008. One injury could fell them. The only experienced backup is Elton Brown, and he’s not a player you want to rely on.

Defense

If ever there was a flex defense, this is it. Clancy Pendergast has the schematic knowledge and personnel to alternate between a three-and four-man front. The addition of Clark Haggans might be an indicator of which direction the Cardinals are headed in 2008. Haggans spent the first eight years of his career in Pittsburgh, the leading source behind today’s 3-4 movement. At 31, he no longer has great oomph to his game, but he understands the system Arizona is trying to run.

Recent history suggests that fate will push Haggans into a starting role at some point. Eleventh-year veteran Bertrand Berry usually gets injured around November–he’s finished the last three seasons on IR–and ninth-year pro Chike Okeafor will likely be rusty after having missed virtually an entire year with a torn biceps tendon. Both men will not only be fighting off Haggans but also free agent pickup Travis LaBoy and fourth-round rookie Kenny Iwebema. The Cards hope it doesn’t come to that. LaBoy has been a 4-3 defensive end his entire career and will likely need a year to transition to a two-point stance. Iwebema has impressed coaches in camp, but not enough to dispel the opinion that he’s still a bit too raw. Still, he could see spot duty in ’08.

The drafting of Miami Hurricane Calais Campbell in the second round is more evidence of a deeper commitment to a 3-4 scheme. Campbell is a multi-purpose defensive lineman who will be asked to play outside in the 3-4 and inside in the 4-3 (likely as a pass-rusher). It’s imperative that he make an early contribution; last season, Antonio Smith manned these responsibilities alone and wore down around Thanksgiving. Smith can be a force when fully energized, but he tends to loaf when fatigue sets in and double teams arrive.

Double teams also present problems to under tackle Darnell Dockett. The fifth-year pro is coming off a career year in which he registered nine sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss. However, eight of those sacks came in the first eight games. Dockett can be dominant when he’s able to use his quickness and win the battle of initial positioning. However, he becomes an enormous liability when blockers get their bodies into him.

It’s important that Dockett play next to someone who can demand attention, preferably in the form of their own double team. Arizona recognized this when they drafted 332-pound Gabe Watson in ’06 and 331-pound Alan Branch in ’07. Both players came from Michigan and both had seen their draft stock fall amidst concerns over their commitment and motor. Thus far, effort has been a non-issue with both, but the same can’t be said for their outright effectiveness. Watson is yet to frighten opposing guards, let alone overpower them enough to command help from centers. The same goes for Branch, who showed little explosiveness as a rookie. There is still time for both to develop, but there’s no guarantee that either will step up. Before all else, Watson must ensure he is healthy. He broke his kneecap on a treadmill back in April and had to have surgery.

Linebacker Karlos Dansby’s dependability is impressive, especially considering how much he’s been moved around throughout his career. Dansby produced his customary smorgasbord of statistics last season, leading the team in tackles (99), collecting 3.5 sacks, forcing four fumbles, breaking up eight passes and intercepting three more. As a reward, he was slapped with an $8.065 million franchise tag, a tender he signed after negotiations for a long-term contract generated no traction.

The Cardinals are set to play Dansby on the weak side this season, though his so-so speed yet laudable strength make him a better fit at the Sam position. He’s good in coverage and can handle most tight ends. Middle/inside linebacker Gerald Hayes is a demon when instincts are running his show. At full force, Hayes is an augmented version of Monty Beisel, the longtime Chief who joined the team midway through 2006. Between Dansby, Hayes and Beisel the Cardinals have three good inside linebackers to fill two spots.

After ranking near the bottom in pass defense for the second straight year, Arizona has once again shaken up its secondary. Cornerback turned nickel back Antrel Rolle has been moved to free safety, where the team hopes his propensity to peek at the quarterback will naturally morph from a weakness into a strength. Rolle should do well at centerfield from a coverage standpoint, but he may not have the requisite tackling abilities.

Replacing Rolle at cornerback will be first-round rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The only thing about him that isn’t fast is the time it takes to say his name. Rodgers-Cromartie–who is not related to the league’s ’07 interception leader, Antonio Cromartie–has the ball skills that are missing from Eric Green’s game. Still, Rodgers-Cromartie hails from tiny Tennessee State, which is why it’s doubtful that he’ll be able to capture Green or Roderick Hood’s starting job right away. Hood is a decent cover corner but he surrenders more receptions than you’d like–including some downfield. He also tends to drop interceptions. He did, however, post 21 pass breakups last season, which tied with Terence McGee for the most in the NFL.

There isn’t a better player for Rolle to learn the safety position from than eighth-year veteran Adrian Wilson. A Pro Bowler in ’06, Wilson is a multifaceted strong safety in the same class as a Troy Polamalu or a Bob Sanders. He does most of his damage near the line of scrimmage (13 sacks from ’05-’06) though his speed and agility make him viable in the open field as well. Wilson is coming back from season-ending heel surgery but is expected to be 100 percent by training camp. With he and Rolle starting, Aaron Francisco is now undoubtedly a reserve.

Special Teams

When he’s right, kicker Neil Rackers is one of the best in the business. He has excellent range and lethal accuracy. Last season, Rackers’s confidence and comfort were rattled by his unfamiliarity with holder Mitch Berger. He missed nine of his 30 field goal attempts (Berger was eventually shown the door:Arizona’s ranking dead last in net punting also contributed to his departure).

This year, Dirk Johnson takes over the punting duties. He lost his job in Philadelphia in part because he doesn’t hold on field goals. Thus the Cardinals will still be looking for someone to handle the holding duties come training camp. Whoever it is, they’ll be catching snaps from the dependable Nathan Hodel, recipient of a four-year contract extension over the offseason.

Second-year pro Steve Breaston was drafted for his return skills. Breaston averaged 22.4 yards on kickoffs and 9.4 yards on punts last season. Such production is acceptable, though more big plays–like, say, his 73-yard touchdown return in Week 4–are expected.

Bottom Line

What happens with the quarterback situation will go a long way toward erasing the ambiguity that encompasses this team. If an identity can be established under center, and if the offensive line can stay healthy, the Cardinals offense has enough pieces to top the 400-point plateau for a second consecutive year. Defensively, a healthy unit and an upgraded secondary would give Arizona their best opportunity at overcoming the weaknesses laced throughout the front seven. Playing in the moribund NFC West certainly helps their chances. Then again, the Cardinals have teased us before.

Myth Buster

Myth: Eric Green is not a good cornerback

The fourth-year pro from Virginia Tech has taken heat for years. That’s what happens when you start 24 games and post just one interception. Fans in this numbers-oriented era label Green as a disappointment, but what many don’t acknowledge is his physicality, quickness and attitude. These are the traits that make him Arizona‘s only true cover corner, and enable him to be a fierce tackler.

True, Green could stand to make more big plays, and he’s not entirely immune to giving up a few as it is. But the first job of a cornerback is to stop the opponents’ passing game, and that’s something he has done a noble job at when healthy. Green signed a one-year, $2.017 restricted free agent tender this year, which means he’ll hit the free market in 2009. It would be a mistake for Arizona to not prioritize re-signing him.

Open Thought

How many teams in the NFL are not as big as their own stadium? In other words, how many teams play in a stadium that is famous but not because of its home team? The Cardinals are one of three that come to mind (the others are the Saints and Texans). The University of Phoenix Stadium has already hosted the greatest college football game in this era (Boise State‘s upset of Oklahoma in the ’07 Fiesta Bowl). It has also hosted the ’07 BCS championship and Super Bowl XLII. Considering the stadium is a popular convention center and will be the site of the 2009 NCAA Men’s Basketball West Regional, it’s unlikely that the Cardinals’ second-tier status at home will change any time soon.

As for the other two teams previously mentioned:

The Saints play in the Superdome, which will forever be remembered for Hurricane Katrina, and then for all the Super Bowls, Sugar Bowls, and Final Fours. Reliant Stadium is yet to host a Texans playoff game, but it has been the site of Super Bowl XXXVIII and is now in the rotation of venues for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. It is also the regular home of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which regularly draws over 70,000 fans.


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