Arizona Cardinals 2010 Season Preview
By Michael Rushton, NFL Contributing Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
With Kurt Warner having ridden off into the glorious sunset of retirement, the Arizona Cardinals were planning on once again handing Matt Leinart the keys to the Porsche.
But as he has done twice before, Leinart is already in danger of crashing and burning the vehicle.
Since being drafted 10th overall by Arizona in 2006, the 27-year-old Leinart has twice lost his starting job to Warner, who guided the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl appearance following the 2008 season and a 10-6 mark last year that included a playoff win over the Green Bay Packers and a divisional round loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Now, coming off consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since 1974-75, the safety net known as Warner is no longer an option and Arizona was planning on coming out of the chute with Leinart under center. However, struggles by the offense over the first two preseason games prompted head coach Ken Whisenhunt to try planned backup Derek Anderson at the start of the third exhibition game.
Both quarterbacks responded with a touchdown pass in a win over the Bears, leaving the quarterback situation in Arizona cloudy.
"I don't have to make any decisions right now," Whisenhunt said of his quarterback spot after the game against Chicago on Aug. 28.
Arizona's final preseason game comes Sept. 2 versus Washington, but how both quarterbacks perform on that day won't be the only thing that determines the Week 1 starter.
"This evaluation covers more things than just the game," the Cardinals' head coach said. "We've had a lot of practices, we've had a lot of reps. There's a lot of things that are involved with this decision."
While Anderson has attempted 53 passes to Leinart's 23, the former Browns signal-caller has just a 70.2 QB rating to Leinart's 110.3. It should also be noted that both have been operating without star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who suffered a sprained MCL in the preseason opener.
Uncertainty under center is the last thing Whisenhunt's club needed. While Warner's offense was nearly the same heading into the '09 campaign, Arizona this past summer lost one of its top playmakers in wide receiver Anquan Boldin, whose season-long campaign for a new deal came to an end with a trade to the Baltimore Ravens.
While Boldin's exit is perhaps the biggest, behind maybe only Warner, he didn't mark the end of the turnover either. Arizona also lost two of its top defensive players to free agency in linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Antrel Rolle. Even kicker Neil Rackers, who had spent his previous seven seasons in the desert, couldn't avoid becoming a roster casualty.
To Arizona's credit, each departure was addressed. Anderson now has a shot at replacing Warner, while veteran linebacker Joey Porter and safety Kerry Rhodes step in as well. Defense was also addressed with the first-round selection of defensive lineman Dan Williams and linebacker Daryl Washington, who the Cards traded up to get at 47th overall as the eventual replacement to Dansby.
Boldin's stand-in, though, is a little more uncertain.
Whisenhunt doesn't seem likely to try and continue Arizona's past success in the air with Warner and Boldin gone, so general manager Rod Graves went out and signed guard Alan Faneca. That move seems to signal that Cardinals' offensive balance may shift a little more towards the run this year.
"When you look at what we've done to address our losses, I feel very good about that," Whisenhunt said early in camp. "We have, to me, a good combination of experienced veterans that are good leaders, good young players, a good core group of players and we've got some exciting draft picks."
Whisenhunt better feel good about his new mix of players, because things are about to get tougher around town with Warner now spending his time with the family and not nose-first in a playbook.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2010 edition of the Arizona Cardinals, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2009 RECORD: 10-6 (1st, NFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2009, lost to New Orleans, 45-14, in NFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Ken Whisenhunt (27-21 in three seasons with Cardinals, 27-21 overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Whisenhunt
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill Davis
OFFENSIVE STAR: Larry Fitzgerald, WR (97 receptions, 1092 yards, 13 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Adrian Wilson, S (74 tackles, 5 INT, 2 sacks)
OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 28th rushing, 12th passing, 11th scoring
DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 17th rushing, 23rd passing, t14th scoring
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Derek Anderson (from Browns), QB John Skelton (5th Round, Fordham), FB Charles Ali (from Ravens), WR Andre Roberts (3rd Round, The Citadel), G Alan Faneca (from Jets), OL Rex Hadnot (from Browns), DT Dan Williams (1st Round, Tennessee), LB Daryl Washington (2nd Round, TCU), OLB Joey Porter (from Dolphins), LB Paris Lenon (from Rams), S Kerry Rhodes (from Jets), K Jay Feely (from Jets)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Kurt Warner (retired), QB Brian St. Pierre (not tendered), FB Dan Kreider (not tendered), FB Justin Green (not tendered), WR Sean Morey (to Seahawks), WR Jerheme Urban (to Chiefs), WR Anquan Boldin (to Ravens), T Mike Gandy (not tendered), DE Jason Banks (released), OLB Chike Okeafor (not tendered), OLB Karlos Dansby (to Dolphins), CB Bryant McFadden (to Steelers), CB Ralph Brown (not tendered), S Antrel Rolle (to Giants), K Neil Rackers (to Texans)
QB: For the second time, Leinart is in danger of playing himself out of the starting role. While injury and great play by Warner kept Leinart on the bench in 2007, he did fail in a subsequent chance at unseating his former mentor. Leinart has made just six starts since his 2006 rookie season and threw for 435 yards with three picks and no touchdown passes in limited time last year. Plan B is Anderson, a Pro Bowl selection in 2007 when he threw for 29 touchdown passes. Anderson's career in Cleveland fizzled afterwards as he managed just 12 touchdown passes over the last two seasons with the lackluster Browns, as he and Brady Quinn constantly traded the starting spot. Fifth-round choice John Skelton out of Fordham and undrafted rookie Max Hall (BYU) will compete for the third spot on the roster.
RB: The good news for Arizona is that unlike 2008, its run game a season ago didn't rank last in the NFL. The bad news is that it only jumped up four spots and averaged just 93.4 yards per game. Tim Hightower (598 rushing yards, 63 receptions, 8 TD) played well enough as a rookie in 2008 -- 10 touchdowns in 16 games and seven starts -- that the club cut ties with Edgerrin James, but not well enough that the Cardinals didn't pass on Chris "Beanie" Wells (793 rushing yards, 7 TD) with the 31st pick of the 2009 draft. Wells had 176 carries a year ago to 143 by Hightower, but both should be leaned on more this season. Jason Wright offers good hands as the third back, while fullback Reagan Mauia could owe a roster spot to what looks like a season-ending knee injury for Nehemiah Broughton.
WR/TE: Though Leinart won't have Boldin to throw to, he still has one of the top targets in football in Fitzgerald, who led the team with 97 catches, 1,092 yards and 13 touchdowns a season ago. Fitzgerald has caught at least 96 balls in four of his first six NFL seasons and already owns 59 touchdown catches. He should be ready for Week 1 despite his injury. Steve Breaston (55 receptions, 3 TD) and Early Doucet (17 receptions, 1 TD) will move up the depth chart and try to replace Boldin's 84 catches and four touchdowns from 2009. Breaston will start opposite of Fitzgerald. Andre Roberts, a third-round pick out of The Citadel, will help out on special teams and likely be the fourth receiver. Arizona's offense doesn't usually involve tight ends, as Ben Patrick, Anthony Becht and Stephen Spach combined for just 23 catches last year.
OL: One of the Cardinals' biggest additions comes in the form of the 305-pound Faneca, who takes over at left guard. Faneca's addition will shift Reggie Wells to the right spot alongside tackle Brandon Keith, who appeared in just four games off the bench last year and now protects Leinart's blind side. The rest of the line remains the same from last year, though former first-round pick Levi Brown moves from right tackle to left due to the departure of free agent Mike Gandy. Lyle Sendlein remains at center. Former starting guard Deuce Lutui, who came into camp overweight, tackles Jeremy Bridges and Herman Johnson, as well as center Ben Claxton offer options off the bench for offensive line coach and recent Hall of Fame inductee Russ Grimm.
DL: The Cardinals finished sixth in the NFL last year with 43 sacks, and a pair of star ends are to thank. Both right end Darnell Dockett (51 tackles) and fellow starter Calais Campbell (48 tackles) finished with a club-best seven sacks and will lead a Cardinals defensive line that could be one of the best in the conference. Dockett has made 81 straight starts, and thankfully for the Cardinals he appears to have decided to earn the new contract he is seeking on the field rather than complain about it off. That's good news for Campbell, who could use the help as he aims to take another step forward. Arizona appears to have three capable players to plug in at nose tackle, with veteran Bryan Robinson (28 tackles, 1 sack) likely to get the first shot at starting. Williams has also impressed since being drafted, while Gabe Watson and end Alan Branch both came into camp lighter in an effort to keep roster spots.
LB: Whisenhunt has plenty of options to go with at linebacker, but unfortunately none of them are named Dansby, the team's leader with 109 tackles a year ago. Gerald Hayes (62 tackles) started alongside Dansby last year, while free agent signee Paris Lenon (43 tackles with Rams) impressed in camp and could lead a thin inside rotation that also features Monty Beisel, Reggie Walker and the rookie Washington. The Cardinals are also reloaded at the outside spot, where Porter (41 tackles, 9 sacks with Dolphins) joins returning starter Clark Haggans (74 tackles, 5 sacks). Porter is 33 years of age, but is just two seasons removed from a 17 1/2 sack campaign in 2008. Will Davis (19 tackles, 2 sacks) and Cody Brown, who missed his rookie year last season due to a wrist injury, are in line to come off the bench.
DB: The Cardinals lost two starters this offseason in corner Bryant McFadden and Rolle, but the two returners are both Pro Bowl players in defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (50 tackles, 6 INT) and strong safety Adrian Wilson (74 tackles, 5 INT). Rodgers-Cromartie's development has been swift since being selected by the Cardinals 16th overall in the 2008 draft, while the hard-hitting Wilson is the defense's leader. Stepping in for McFadden will be either Greg Toler, who played in 13 games last year as a rookie without a start, or Trumaine McBride. McBride, though, played in just one game with the Bears a season ago. Michael Adams (40 tackles, 1 INT) is also an option. Arizona traded for Rhodes (63 tackles, 3 INT with Jets) to replace Rolle, a converted corner who never lived up to his billing as the eighth overall pick of the 2005 draft. Matt Ware and Rashad Johnson back up.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Rackers attempted just 17 field goals in the regular season last year, hitting all but one, but his 34-yard miss in overtime versus Green Bay in the playoffs nearly cost Arizona that game. So, in is veteran Jay Feeley, who connected on 30 field goal attempts last year with the Jets but struggled in an AFC Championship loss to the Colts. Ben Graham tied an NFL single-season record with 42 punts inside the 20-yard line and his 47.0 yard average per punt was a club record. Entering his 11th season, Mike Leach is in his second as Arizona's long snapper. With Breaston's elevation on the depth chart, Roberts should take over returning punts, and he took three to the house during his college career. RB LaRod Stephens-Howling will field kickoffs after posting a 24.2 return average with a touchdown.
PROGNOSIS: The Cardinals have never before posted three straight seasons of finishing in first place, and don't appear to be in a favorable position to achieve that goal this year. The loss of Warner and Boldin definitely knocks Arizona down a few pegs in the conference pecking order, and the Cards have yet to show they can consistently run the ball to take some pressure off Leinart/Anderson. The club is very strong defensively, but a lack of depth in the secondary, especially at the corners, will hurt when it plays the likes of San Diego, New Orleans, Minnesota and Dallas. Add in an up-and-coming 49ers team and the hungry Seahawks, and the Cardinals look like a middle-of-the-pack club that will finish outside of the playoff picture.