Everyone’s chic pick for 2006, the Arizona Cardinals, enter the 2007 season with many of the same expectations. With a lot of the weapons that return to one of the NFL’s top offenses, it’s hard to disagree. They could have one of the most formidable set of skill players in the NFL. They have a perennial Pro Bowler at running back (Edgerrin James) and two extremely talented wide receivers (Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald). Of course, there’s also former USC quarterback Matt Leinart, who came on in the latter part of the 2006 season as the Cardinal’s starting quarterback. Have they done enough to improve their offensive line? How about remedying the inconsistency in their defense?
2006 Record (Standing): 5-11 (last in NFC West)
2006 Postseason (If app.): n/a
Head Coach (Career Record): Ken Whisenhunt, 1st season
Key Additions: OL Levi Brown (draft; 1st round, 5th pick), S Terrence Holt (FA; Detroit Lions), CB Roderick Hood (FA; Philadelphia), DT Alan Branch (draft; 2nd round, 33rd pick), OT Mike Gandy (FA; Buffalo), OG Al Johnson (FA; Dallas)
Key Losses: OT Leonard Davis (FA; Dallas), S Robert Griffiths (FA; Unsigned), FB Obafemi Ayanbadejo (FA; Chicago)
Positives: Where to start on offense? They’ve got some of the most dynamic skill position players in the NFL. At running back is former All-Pro Edgerrin James. Although he really did not perform to the level that was expected of him in his first season in Arizona, the 2007 is a perfect opportunity to get back on track and put up some of the gaudy numbers that he had while in Indianapolis. Meanwhile, their receiving corps could very well possess the best 1-2 combination in the league. Anquan Boldin is a strong receiver that bodies the smaller corners and puts physical pressure on every defender on the field. Larry Fitzgerald is a big guy that can get into the open space and make some terrific catches and be a huge target in the end zone. Both of these guys are capable of being a number one receiver. In fact, you have to look at them as being two top receivers on the same team. There really is no break, either, because Bryant Johnson is a solid receiver. Although never living up to the potential as a former first-round pick, Johnson has settled into the third receiver role very nicely.
It all comes together with the quarterback, second year pro Matt Leinart. Coming out of USC, everyone said that Leinart fell into the perfect situation with the Cardinals even though he dropped in the draft. Well, it looks as though both parties, Leinart and the Cardinals, benefited greatly from this. Leinart began to put it all together as the 2006 season came to an end, bringing forth some high hopes and high expectations in the deserts of Arizona. For his part, Leinart is a quarterback that can put the ball exactly where it needs to be. They always talk about him not having a lot of arm strength, but there have been so many people that have gotten by without a Jeff George-type arm. The key is that Leinart throws a ball that is easy to catch, something that receivers love. Leinart has also shown the leadership qualities that he used at USC and got them to two national championships. There are some things that need to be improved, including his accuracy and limiting the interceptions, but overall it looks as though Leinart has everything set up in 2007 to really get into the next level of NFL quarterbacks.
The secondary looks to be improving every season and now that the Cardinals have some good pieces in place, the growth could nearly be complete. Adrian Wilson is easily one of the best safeties in the NFL. There really seems to be no play that he cannot make, whether against the run or the pass. Wilson has the versatility to play inside the box and come up against the run yet still be effective as a ‘center fielder’ against some pass plays. Adding Terrence Holt from Detroit should bolster the secondary even more. Holt was also a playmaking safety with the Lions, and the added bonus of lining up twice a season against brother Torry of the St. Louis Rams could get him to have an even better season. The two corners, Antrel Rolle and Eric Green, have also shown tremendous growth at the position. Rolle has been especially good at playing both aspects of defense, run and pass support. As he continues to develop, expect Rolle to be able to be placed out on an island and become a shutdown corner in the NFL.
Question Marks: This team will need to get pressure to the quarterback, early and often. Where is that pressure going to come from? They will need more consistent pressure up the middle to get their ends more space to work. Chike Okeafor and Bertrand Berry had 14.5 sacks combined last season, but they will need help from the interior linemen to get pressure on the quarterbacks, especially in their division. Getting that push up front will be vital because it can help them control those offenses they will be facing.
Expectations can be pretty heavy as well. For the past couple of seasons, the expectations for this team have really been lofty. Every season they are expected to be one of the teams in the NFL that are going to break out and be a contender. It’s hard every year for them to be expected to win and get to the top of the NFC West at the least. How are they going to live up to another offseason of expectations and hungry fans? Will they be able to put it all together for sixteen games or will they falter and fall into the same trap that they have been falling into for the past few seasons? After so long, teams begin to get into the same complacency when it comes to slow starts. The team has to come out of the gates quickly and make an impression, or that ‘losing culture’ could further seep into their psyches.
They have brought in some key pieces onto the offensive line, but can they put it all together? Veterans Mike Gandy and Al Johnson come in to try and strengthen the line, and both are capable of being solid offensive lineman for the Cards, but the question is whether or not they can build a quick chemistry with the incumbents and build a strong line for the running game and protect young Matt Leinart as he continues to develop. Right now this is the unit on the team that has the most to prove, and until they do, they will continue to be considered the weak link on the offense.
Offensive Grade: Overall, it’s hard not to like this offense. Matt Leinart is growing into an exceptional quarterback. Maybe he will never see the same success as Peyton Manning in terms on numbers, but he is more than capable of being a solid leader for this offense. It does not hurt to have a lot of weapons, and Leinart could have one of the best groups in the league. Edgerrin James is motivated to put 2006’s subpar effort behind him and become the All-Pro runner he once was every year for the Colts. Meanwhile, the receivers are top notch and can challenge even the best defenses into having to cover them. Both Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald are Pro-Bowl caliber receivers that can dominate any game they are in, which can be especially difficult for defenses to key in to one guy. The offensive line looks to be rebuilt. They brought in some new pieces for the line to try and get a new unit together that can stand up to the defenses they will be seeing because they need to give Leinart a lot of time to find his receivers. Defenses will be looking rattle him and the line needs to stop them from pinning their ears back and going after Leinart on every play. In the end, there seems to be enough in place for the Cards to get over that hump that has kept them down for the past few seasons.
Defensive Grade: Where does this defense stand? The defensive line has to prove that it can get some pressure to the quarterback consistently. A lot of their sacks in 2006 were the basis of coverage and not the ability to rush the quarterback effectively. That has to change, especially with the interior linemen. Rookie Alan Branch from Michigan should have a chance to crack the line and get into the rotation and try to exact a little change there. The linebackers have to be the playmakers and stay disciplined. These players, especially Karlos Dansby, have a tendency to over pursue and get lost in the shuffle, no matter how many positive plays they make. Doing that and staying in their lanes will prove to be vital. They have good experience in the secondary, particularly at the safety position, and the corners are growing daily. Both Adrian Wilson and Terrence Holt will have to be very active back there to support the growth of the young corners.
Special Teams: Neil Rackers will once again handle the kicking duties for the Cards. Rackers has been a little overvalued. Truth is that Rackers has been a career 76.5% kicker and not as consistent as you might think from his 2005 breakout season. Last season, Rackers only hit 75.7% of his kicks, but that can be a little deceiving, too. He was only 1/7 from above 50 yards, which made his numbers seem worse. So where does he stand as a kicker? Somewhere among the middle of the pack. At punter is Scott Player, entering his 10th season with the Cards. He has always been a solid punter. His career gross average is 43 yards per kick. The Cards have a few options at returner, including J.J. Arrington and Bryant Johnson. Johnson will probably be the punt returner for the Cards, while they will both share the kick return duties.
Coaching Staff: Ken Whisenhunt built one of the most solid, balanced offenses in Pittsburgh through the course of the last three seasons. Whisenhunt was the coordinator in 2005 when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. The Steeler offense has been one of the most consistent with Whisenhunt at the helm; last season they were 7th in overall offense. He is not without help from those days, as he brought over Russ Grimm to work as the offensive line coach. Meanwhile, he has also enlisted the support of Todd Haley, who was the passing game coordinator for the Cowboys under Bill Parcells last season. This group should be able to get both aspects of the offense should be able to give them some great balance and a good system to run. Defensively, Clancy Pendergast was retained by Whisenhunt to be the defensive coordinator, a job he’s held since 2004. Pendergast has made the defense stronger, especially in forcing turnovers. They forced 33 last season, the second time in three seasons under Pendergast that they have reached 30 or more. This defense continues to grow and Pendergast is a large reason for that.
Offensive MVP: Anquan Boldin
Defensive MVP: Adrian Wilson
Notes: Arizona could make some serious strides here, but let’s not get too excited yet. They do this every season. In the end, look for some improvement, but just falling a little short. They are still about one year away from serious contention.