Cardinals could not be more battle-tested

Posted Aug. 18, 2011 @ 10:28 a.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

Is it actually conceivable that the 2011 Cardinals could follow in the footsteps of the sweltering-hot Arizona Diamondbacks and become an NFL diamond in the rough in 2011?

In the NFC West, we all know anything is possible.

But here's a much more pertinent question heading into the Cardinals' second preseason game at Lambeau Field Friday evening against the defending Super Bowl-champion Packers:

Could the Cardinals possibly have more legitimate position battles going on at the moment?

I think not.

What we have here is the polar opposite of the Packers — a team that, aside from the left guard spot, could not be more set in stone.

What about the Cardinals?

Well, for starters, we can unequivocally count on newly acquired Kevin Kolb being the quarterback.

Larry Fitzgerald is locked in at the No. 1 WR spot. Same goes for Levi Brown at left tackle, Lyle Sendlein at center and ex-Packer Daryn Colledge at left guard.

At tight end, newcomer Todd Heap shapes up as the starter, although both fellow newcomer Jeff King and rookie Rob Housler also figure to make their presence felt.

On defense, Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell are booked in as the bookends on the line, fleet-footed second-year pro Daryl Washington looks like a strong bet to man one of the two ILB posts and Kerry Rhodes is entrenched at free safety after performing commendably in his first season in a Cardinals uniform.

And the special teams appear to be in good hands — as well as feet — thanks to PK Jay Feely, P Ben Graham, LS Mike Leach and dynamic kick returner LaRod Stephens-Howling.

But there's no denying a pencil with an industrial-sized eraser is needed for the rest of the depth chart.

If it's position battles you want, the Cardinals' roster is a frickin' war zone.

Let's take a closer look at the unsettled spots, position by position:

Starting running back: Beanie Wells vs. Ryan Williams

Wells, a disappointment last season in no small part because of a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery after the final preseason game, remains the starter. But Williams, the second running back selected in this year's draft after Mark Ingram, is breathing heavily down Wells' neck.

The Cardinals did not select Williams in the second round with the intention of having him spend the season picking splinters out of his fanny on the sideline. By all accounts, the Cardinals are absolutely enamored with Williams' hard-charging running style, his shaky injury history notwithstanding.

Don't be surprised if the winner in this battle is determined by the back who provides the best blitz pick-up, which neither Wells nor Williams have shown they effectively can provide.

No. 2 wide receiver: Andre Roberts vs. Early Doucet — with Stephen Williams and Chansi Stuckey on the outside looking in

"It's still an open competition," WR coach John McNulty said earlier this week. "Andre hasn't done anything to lose it (the starting job), and Early's done everything to keep pushing him. We'll just decide how we want to use them as the season goes along."

Roberts, a third-round pick last season, came on strong after admittedly being overwhelmed in his first NFL training camp. On Christmas night, he burned the Cowboys with five catches for 110 yards and 244 all-purpose yards counting returns, including a flashy 74-yard TD catch.

But Doucet, hampered by injuries in each of his three seasons, has been one of the team's more impressive-looking players in the early going. If Doucet can stay healthy …

Williams, a training-camp sensation last season as an undrafted rookie, has bulked up a bit and definitely could figure in the mix. So could the physical Stuckey, who started five games for the Browns last season and registered a career-high 40 catches for 346 yards.

Right guard: Rex Hadnot vs. Deuce Lutui

Lutui, the starter last season, almost certainly would be the starter if he weren't so grossly overweight, which has been a huge problem his entire career. A free agent, Lutui had agreed to a two-year deal with the Bengals, but after tipping the scales at 381 pounds (that's not a typo), the Bengals released him, and he came back to the desert with his helmet in his hand. Coaches would like to see him get down to at least 350, which could be asking a lot.

Hadnot, a savvy veteran who can swing between both guard spots and center, is good in the locker room but has had knee issues.

Right tackle: Brandon Keith vs. Jeremy Bridges

Keith, the starter last season until a severely torn right hamstring injury landed him on injured reserve in mid-November, has spent more time this preseason limping around than anything. Like Hadnot, Bridges is a crafty, old pro with an attitude. Sources on the scene report that the team would have no problem replacing Keith with Bridges if Keith doesn't shape up soon.

Fullback: Reagan Maui'a vs. Anthony Sherman

Granted, the Cardinals don't use a fullback much in their offense, but the competition here is worth noting. In the preseason opener, Sherman, a fifth-round rookie, threw some nice blocks and showed a flair for fighting through traffic, in addition to playing well on special teams, which he also did exceedingly well in college.

Maui'a replaced the injured Nehemiah Broughton as the starter last season and was widely considered expendable after the Cardinals opted not to tender him earlier in the offseason.

Nose tackle: Dan Williams vs. David Carter and Nick Eason

While Williams, a first-round pick in 2010, has been a disappointment so far, Carter, a sixth-round rookie, has made a strong impression with his quickness and ability to take on double-teams.

Eason, a free-agent addition who played mostly outside with the Steelers, was coveted last offseason as a free agent before he re-upped with Pittsburgh.

Right outside linebacker: Joey Porter vs. O'Brien Schofield, Will Davis and possibly Sam Acho

Porter, who agreed to take a paycut after being a disappointment in his first season with the Cardinals, was expected to get a big-time run for his money from Schofield, a fourth-round draft pick last season considered to have a huge upside as a badly needed outside pass rusher (he had 12 sacks and 24½ tackles for loss as a senior at Wisconsin).

But in practice this past Monday evening, it was Acho and not Schofield who replaced Porter, who was sidelined. Suffice it to say Schofield has been just so-so so far this season.

Like Schofield, Davis has displayed some genuine pass-rush potential. But he has had all kinds of problems staying healthy in his two seasons at the pro level.

Right inside linebacker: Paris Lenon vs. Stewart Bradley

Lenon, who signed as a free agent in the spring of 2010, was a pleasant surprise last season, registering a team-high 125 tackles and doing a decent job taking over the signal-calling duties from the injured Gerald Hayes, despite previously playing in the Rams' 4-3 scheme.

But Lenon is undersized and considered much more of a finesse player than Bradley, who signed a five-year deal with the Cardinals after coming back strong with the Eagles last season (second-leading tackler in only 12 starts) after sitting out the 2009 season with a knee injury. I know you already have read this, but if Bradley can stay healthy …

Left outside linebacker: Clark Haggans vs. Sam Acho

As usual, Haggans is in great shape, but like Porter, he's 34 years old and considered pretty close to being on his last legs. The good news is that Haggans appears more than willing to accept a reserve role if need be.

Acho, a fourth-round rookie who played end the past two years at Texas, is very smart, as well as a hard worker. But he has looked pretty raw so far at the pro level.

Right cornerback: Greg Toler vs. Richard Marshall

Toler continues to hold on to the starting job he inherited from the departed Bryant McFadden. He's a willing tackler and a lot more physical than fellow 2010 starting CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but he had more downs than ups last season.

Marshall, a free-agent addition who started every game for Carolina the past two seasons, is a good bet to eventually replace Toler. But Michael Adams, who is better-suited as a nickel corner, is currently second on the depth chart behind Toler.

Left cornerback: Patrick Peterson vs. A.J. Jefferson

The big factor worth taking into account at this position is head coach Ken Whisenhunt's well-documented aversion to starting rookies. With that in mind, Peterson, the team's first-round draft pick this season, might not start the opener, relinquishing that role instead to Jefferson, a second-year pro who keeps "movin' on up" (sorry, couldn't resist) in the eyes of the Cardinals' coaching staff.

But it's only a matter of time, one would think, before Peterson takes over and hopefully becomes the shutdown corner with excellent size, speed and athleticism the Cardinals envision he will be.

Strong safety: Rashad Johnson vs. Hamza Abdullah and Matt Ware

Normally the starter at strong safety would be veteran Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson, but he suffered a torn biceps early in camp, and despite insisting he will play through the injury, his status looks rather shaky for the foreseeable future.

Enter Johnson, a former third-round pick who so far has failed to live up to expectations, so much so that he is currently listed on the depth chart as the backup behind Rhodes at free safety.

While at the University of Alabama, head coach Nick Saban said Johnson was one of the smartest players he ever coached, but you could have fooled daily team observers who have watched Johnson underachieve more often than not. That said, Johnson made fewer mental errors this past season and looks like the third safety moving forward.

But Abdullah and Ware, both considered to be serviceable and hardworking, are expected to push Johnson to the hilt.

Now that you are no doubt thoroughly exhausted if you have managed to make it through this column, let me just sign off by telling you that Richard Bartel, a practice-squad member on four different teams before landing in the desert, is apparently pushing strong-armed John Skelton for the backup QB job behind Kolb.

And the battles in the desert go on and on and on.