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Roster Roundouts ’10: An Arizona Cardinals Season Preview

See all of the previous LiveBall Roster Roundouts articles:  BucsBrownsChiefsJaguarsRamsSeahawksBengalsBillsLionsGiants, DolphinsBroncos, Redskins.

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Arizona Cardinals (projected finish: 9-7)

Team synopsis: The Cardinals are just a minor contender for a deep playoff run this year, but there are schedule-related reasons that I like two teams to come out of the weak NFC West this year.  I have the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC playoff field, but as a low seed matched up against a much better team on the road, Matt Leinart’s first taste of NFL playoff action — aside from a short 2nd quarter appearance against the Saints — will be, well, short.

Best Players

  • WR Larry Fitzgerald (drafted — Pittsburgh/2004 1st round pick)
  • WR Steve Breaston (drafted — Michigan/2007 5th round pick)
  • DE Darnell Dockett (drafted — Florida State/2004 3rd round pick)
  • CB Dominique Rogers-Cromartie (drafted — Tennessee State/2008 1st round pick)
  • SS Adrian Wilson (drafted — N.C. State/2001 3rd round pick)
  • FS Kerry Rhodes (drafted — Louisville/2005 4th round pick)

Best Prospects

  • RB Beanie Wells (drafted — Ohio State/2009 1st round pick)
  • WR Early Doucet (drafted — LSU/2008 3rd round pick)
  • RT Brandon Keith (drafted — Northern Iowa/2008 7th round pick)
  • NT Dan Williams (drafted — Tennessee/2010 1st round pick)
  • OLB Cody Brown (drafted — Connecticut/2009 2nd round pick)
  • OLB Will Davis (drafted — Illinois/2009 6th round pick)
  • ILB Daryl Washington (drafted — TCU/2010 2nd round pick)
  • CB Greg Toler (drafted — St. Paul’s (VA)/2009 4th round pick)

One thing you can see looking at that list above is that there’s a lot of talent here, but even more uncertainty, particularly on offense.  While Beanie Wells in many ways is already an established NFL running back, giving them a third workhorse on offense to pair with two receivers, there is little certainty in the offensive line and tight end group: we simply do not know who will be playing for the Cards this year.

And saying that ignores the Quarterback position, where the Cardinals will not be giving Matt Leinart an unlimited leash, even without Kurt Warner on the roster.  This is a team that really likes Derek Anderson, who goes from a situation in Cleveland void of anyone to throw to, and heads to an Arizona team that is beyond loaded with receiving targets.  Anderson continues to have one of the most charmed careers in memory, after being drafted in the 5th round in 2005 by Baltimore, he somehow doesn’t make that team, but wanders into a situation in Cleveland that was volatile and ready to explode.  Then he made the pro bowl on the back of three great games.  That pro bowl nomination helped him hold the Cleveland job beyond expiration date, only an injury took him out of the lineup (he was playing terribly).  Then in 2009, he managed to start seven more games despite having absolutely zero value to the new coaching staff and the team really, badly, needing to see what Brady Quinn could do.  Anderson accounted for 25% of the teams passing TDs, and 59% of the teams interceptions.  Now, he gets a cushy job as the popular backup QB in Arizona, post Warner.  He’s still incredibly young, at 27 years old this season, and I’m not sure exactly what he’s done to deserve such fortune.

Leinart, though, is unlikely to give the job away.  He is also 27 years of age, but has the stronger pedigree, and unquestionably, is more accomplished than Anderson.  Derek Anderson’s career best completion percentage is a pathetic 56.5%.  That was his pro bowl 2007 season.  Anderson led the league in yards per completion that year, which lead to an above average yards per attempt figure that was completely unsustainable.  Anderson’s one skill is his ability to get rid of the football — this is a skill that Leinart shares, and might actually be better at.  Leinart showed in 2009 that he can complete passes, which gives him a decisive advantage going into camp.  The bottom line is that Anderson can impersonate Leinart for a few weeks at a time, as they are similar players, but Leinart is the one who will make it through a whole season.  And if Anderson can get to a pro-bowl (in the AFC!), you’d be foolish to think Leinart can not, considering all the weapons he has.

Few understand how to develop quarterbacks better than Ken Whisenhunt, who worked his magic with a very raw Ben Roethlisberger, turning him into one of the all time “pure winners” in the NFL, and a super bowl champ by the age of 23.  Developing a quarterback means a return to power running and play action, and that’s where Wells comes in.  Last year, the Cardinals protected a weak offensive line with Kurt Warner’s arena football skills.  This year, Wells’ grit will be the primary barrier between top defensive ends, and Leinart.  The harder he pounds those edges, the more indecisive those ends will be, giving Leinart time to get deeper into his progressions.  History has shown that Leinart will scale down his reads in the face of a major pass rush, so the better Wells runs, the more deep balls there will be for receivers not named “Fitzgerald.”

Honestly though, it’s okay if all the downfield balls go his way.  With all due respect to Vincent Jackson and Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald is the game’s premier receiver.  Anquan Boldin is a great player in his own right, but with Fitzgerald dictating all coverages by the opposing defense, the Cardinals won’t miss him.  They replace his size in the slot with Early Doucet’s speed, which adds another element to the offense.   Doucet’s speed will be used primarily underneath, and the Cardinals can send Fitzgerald or Breaston deep on any play.  Even though it looks like they have little top talent on offense, four skill position stars is usually more than enough to scare most defensive coordinators.  Plus, the Cards are deeper than just Wells at running back, an injury to him will not wreck their chances on offense.  He might, however, be the only back that can run effectively and efficiently behind this weak offensive line.

Levi Brown is still a poor pass blocker who will move to the left side and lead the Cardinals’ rushing attack.  Deuce Lutui and Alan Faneca are the other notable names on the line, but Faneca is a weak pass blocker at this point, and Lutui could be in a fight for his job with Herman Johnson and veteran Rex Hadnot.  Lyle Sendlein will play center for at least one more year, but the important right tackle position is wide open, and could be held by 3rd year man Brandon Keith, who is more developed at this point in his career than his college teammate Chad Rinehart, a third round pick in the same draft class.  Also in the mix is OT Jeremy Bridges, who resigned with the Cards in the offseason.

The defense is now the bell-cow for the Cardinals, with the best player being Darnell Dockett on the defensive front.  The defensive line is very good, with Gabe Watson holding down the nose tackle position until first round pick Dan Williams is ready to take over, and Calais Campbell being in a truly perfect defense for his skill set, as the Cards are the only hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense in the league that can make use of a larger bodied defensive end who has a reverse skill set: excellent on the pass rush, weak against the run, but plays on the defensive interior.

The other key of the pass defense unit is the secondary, where the Cards have three main contributors: CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, FS Kerry Rhodes, and SS Adrian Wilson.  The fourth member of the secondary is CB Trumaine McBride, the only other player on the roster at the corner position with starting experience.  Last year’s fourth round pick, Greg Toler, is the nickel back this year, and could replace McBride as the second corner.  This is a group that is strong, but not deep.  Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the most talented players in the league at any position, but still makes a bunch of read errors in coverage.  On one hand, he still has a lot of room to develop, but the flip side of that argument is that this league is going to pay him handsomely even if he does not.  Wilson and Rhodes get the most out of their talent, and their relatively limited range puts pressure on the corners to not give up the big play.  Those big plays are there to be had against this defense.

The strengths up front and in the secondary obscure a major weakness at the LB level.  The Cardinals will have to be very liberal in their use of 4-3 fronts this year, especially in passing situations.  The Cards LBs fit nicely in two categories: aging/veteran depthy type, and toolzy raw/prospect.  The one exception to the rule is Gerald Hayes, who is probably the best player at this level for Arizona.  He’s a MLB type in a 4-3.  On the outside, they have veterans Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, who will start this year.  Behind them, they have prospects in Cody Brown, Will Davis, and O’Brien Schofield.  Brown is the best prospect, but he was a second rounder last year who missed his whole rookie season with injury.  Davis played well enough to get two sacks last year in very limited snaps.  Schofield is an undersized rookie with an impressive motor.  The Cardinals are in good hands for the future, but Porter is in severe decline in every phase of his game except trash talk, and Haggans is just a guy who can line up where he’s told.

On the interior, the Cardinals found a good one in undersized ILB Daryl Washington from TCU.  He’s a year away from starting, but is a London Fletcher type with potential to shut down an opponents running game.  The second ILB starter this year will either be Monty Beisel or Paris Lenon.  Meh.  Going to the 4-3 takes these guys off the field, which would be the idea.

The linebackers are an excellent snapshot of why the Cardinals are quickly becoming a top-tier franchise.  It’s not a strong unit.  It’s clearly the obvious hole on the defense.  But they loaded it up with guys who they expect to contribute in the future, so if they find themselves three game out of it in December, they can go with an all-young defensive lineup, and not have to wait until the 2011 draft to fix issues that they could have forseen in November of 2009.  It’s the difference between the Cardinals, and a perennial loser like the Bills or the Raiders.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

The Cards are as deep at running back as any team, having three no. 2s:  Tim Hightower, LaRod Stephens-Howling, and Jason Wright.  Wright and Stephens-Howling are better pass receivers than Hightower, who probably has the most limited value of the three, but the most perceived value because he started in the playoffs during the super bowl run in 2008.  He’s got one year left on his contract after this year, and could be traded or released at any point.  As long as he’s here, he’ll see more carries than the other two.

The Cardinals continue to add to their embarrassment of riches at the wide receiver position, taking advantage of a deep draft at the position to land Andre Roberts, who has the inside track for the 4th receiver job.  The fifth receiver will be a player who is primarily used on special teams.  The Cards could add a veteran at the receiver position and probably not disturb the balance of youth and playing time, so keep one eye on that.

It will be interesting to see if Dominique Byrd can crack the roster at tight end.  The Cards have Ben Patrick as the starter and Steve Spach as a 1a type pass catcher, and then hold Anthony Becht as a blocker.  Byrd isn’t competing for Becht’s spot as the third guy, but Patrick and Spach are hardly well-entrenched, so the former 2nd rounder could have a resurrection of his career in Arizona.

The Cards brought in Rex Hadnot to be a G-C swingman, but it’s not certain that the team won’t keep Ben Claxton as the backup center instead.  If Hadnot isn’t the backup center, his value as a one position backup guard is marginal.  He likely makes the team anyway based on contractual security, but that would mean the release of another guard, possibly Reggie Wells.  The most likely scenario is that Hadnot will back up at C and RG, making Herman Johnson a RG/RT swingman behind Bridges.  Then Wells will back up Faneca.

The most interesting underachieving big guy vs. old veteran formula battle has to be between Bryan Robinson, who is now 38, and Alan Branch, a second rounder from the 2007 draft who was projected as a top ten pick before his pro day.  Branch apparently has no future on the Cardinals, while Robinson has little future in football.

Because the Cards are unlikely to keep ten linebackers, Ali Highsmith and Reggie Walker may need to unseat veterans Monty Beisel and Paris Lenon to make the team.  O’Brien Schofield can work at all four LB positions, which gives the team added flexibility.

The Cardinals have Justin Miller (primarily a return man), and Michael Adams in camp at corner to round out the position.  Both could face heat from rookie A.J. Jefferson, previously of Fresno State.  It is unlikely the Cardinals will roster five safeties, so between Matt Ware, Rashad Johnson, and Hamza Abdullah, there might be one release.  Then again, the Cardinals held 5 safeties last year, so that cut his not a certainty.

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