2011 team previews
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Recent posts by Dan Arkush
The honeymoon is over for Ken Whisenhunt after a major 2010 meltdown has the Cardinals' head coach feeling real heat for the first time in his four-year tenure in the desert.
Put simply, the Cardinals never recovered from: (a) the retirement of QB Kurt Warner, who chose to walk away from an $11 million payoff in the final year of his contract; and (b) a painful early hit in free agency, when they lost WR Anquan Boldin (in a trade), ILB Karlos Dansby and FS Antrel Rolle.
With Whisenhunt's gamble that free-agent addition Derek Anderson could effectively replace Warner turning out to be a big-time blunder, the Cardinals' offense declined dramatically.
Whisenhunt is now banking on Kevin Kolb, who was obtained in a costly trade with the Eagles and signed to a five-year deal worth $63 million, to come through under center and help lift the Cardinals back into contention in the NFC West.
Significant changes have also been made to Whisenhunt's coaching staff, with Mike Miller being promoted to offensive coordinator, and Ray Horton, who previously worked under Dick LeBeau as the Steelers' DB coach, replacing Billy Davis as the defensive coordinator.
The onus is on Horton to assemble a much more cohesive defense, as communication problems proved to be a big problem last season for an underachieving unit that has lost former Pro Bowl CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who went to the Eagles in the trade for Kolb.
Ken Whisenhunt has yet to officially decide whether he or new coordinator Mike Miller will be calling plays in 2011. Look for whoever ends up with that task to make a concerted effort to get more mileage out of a ground game that was limited by the team's tendency to fall behind early in a lot of games last season.
Quarterbacks: Kevin Kolb, who turned 27 on Aug. 24, was widely considered the best QB available this offseason, even though he has started only seven games in four seasons. He has a gun for an arm, good size and is very mobile, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt loves his gym-rat mindset and Kurt Warner-like intangibles. Kolb's backup is probably John Skelton, who went 2-2 as a starter down the 2010 stretch. He has ideal size, good arm strength, a quick release and surprising mobility. But Skelton suffered a high ankle sprain halfway through the preseason and could be challenged by either Richard Bartel or newcomer Brodie Croyle.
Running backs: Incumbent Beanie Wells figured to get a real run for his money from second-rounder Ryan Williams, the second running back picked in this year's draft behind Mark Ingram. But the run ended when Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second preseason game. A right knee injury suffered in the 2010 training camp derailed what many thought would be a breakout season for Wells. The Cardinals' first-round draft pick in '09 missed the first two games last season after quietly undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery following the final preseason game and publicly complained about not being used enough after recovering from the injury. After showing signs of developing into a dynamic runner with a nice combination of power and 4.5 40-speed as a rookie, Wells' yards per carry dropped more than a yard — from 4.5 to 3.4 — last season. With Williams lost for the year, and Tim Hightower having been traded to the Redskins, an experienced veteran is expected to be added to back up Wells soon. Diminutive LaRod Stephens-Howling, a very dangerous threat both rushing and receiving when matched up one-on-one with safeties and linebackers, is the No. 2 back for now. Fifth-rounder Anthony Sherman, a sturdy lead blocker, is expected to seriously compete for the starting FB job along with Reagan Maui'a, who finished last season as the starter after Nehemiah Broughton was placed on injured reserve.
Receivers: Cardinals star WR Larry Fitzgerald agreed to terms on a new eight-year contract worth up to $120 million Aug. 20. Due in great part to the Arizona QBs' failure to deliver him the ball with anywhere near the same effectiveness as Kurt Warner, Fitzgerald's numbers dropped last season. But he still managed his fourth straight 1,000-yard season, catching 90 passes (fourth-most in the NFC), which enabled him to surpass Anquan Boldin as the Cardinals' all-time receptions leader. Fitzgerald was slowed in the '10 preseason by a knee injury, which affected his timing early in the year, but he continued to demonstrate a great ability to adjust to passes while in flight and make catches in traffic. With Steve Breaston out of the picture after signing with the Chiefs, the candidates for the No. 2 WR job behind Fitzgerald include Early Doucet, promising second-year pros Andre Roberts and Stephen Williams and free-agent addition Chansi Stuckey. Doucet has good size and strength and decent mobility, but he has had problems staying healthy and is currently the No. 3 WR behind Roberts, a third-round pick last year who admittedly looked awful during his rookie training camp but was displaying impressive flashes late in the season — like his 74-yard TD catch on Christmas night against the Cowboys. Williams, an undrafted rookie, was just the opposite of Roberts. Looking like a real find in the '10 preseason, the 6-foot-5 Williams became a virtual nonfactor in the regular season. The Cardinals are deeper at tight end than they have been in decades after adding free agents Todd Heap and blocking specialist Jeff King and third-rounder Rob Housler to go with holdovers Stephen Spach and Jim Dray. A two-time Pro Bowler, Heap is a local product who has caught at least 40 passes in six seasons. Housler has the speed to stretch defenses and the size to create mismatches.
Offensive linemen: In his first season at left tackle after starting at right tackle his previous three seasons, former first-round draft pick Levi Brown was a decent run blocker. But he left a lot to be desired as a pass protector. At left guard, the retirement of Alan Faneca opened the door for free-agent addition Daryn Colledge, a smart, solid veteran who was the only Packers lineman to start every game the last three seasons. Considered a better pass blocker than run blocker, the feisty Colledge has never missed a game in the NFL or college. At right tackle, incumbent Brandon Keith could be challenged by versatile veteran Jeremy Bridges, who can play both guard and tackle. Keith was up and down before landing on injured reserve in mid-November with a severely torn right hamstring and looked like he was still hurting through much of training camp. C Lyle Sendlein, who was re-signed for five years, is a solid interior lineman in his prime who seldom makes mistakes. ORG Deuce Lutui re-signed a one-year deal after failing his physical with the Bengals because he tipped the scales at 381 pounds. Lutui can be a powerful load with a real nasty streak. But with his weight being a constant issue, he will have to win back the starting ORG job from savvy veteran Rex Hadnot, who can swing between guard and center, Free-agent addition Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack adds depth.
Ray Horton, the Cardinals' third defensive coordinator under head coach Ken Whisenhunt, intends to install an aggressive, downhill, attacking defense in the same mold of Dick LeBeau's highly regarded Steelers defense.
Defensive linemen: High-energy DT Darnell Dockett, who signed a four-year, $48 million contract just before the start of last season, was not as disruptive as he was in '09, when he tied DE Calais Campbell for the team lead with seven sacks and registered a career-high 15 tackles for loss (he had eight in '10). A partial reason was a stinger that weakened his left arm and forced him to miss the first game of his seven-year career in early November. Dockett, who has a wickedly quick first step and a natural mean streak, admitted in late March that it would probably be a wise move to rotate him out more early in games to preserve his strength. Many daily team observers expected the 6-foot-8 Campbell to become a double-digit sacker in his second season as a starter. But he had a tendency to play too high and lose valuable leverage and appeared to press before settling down and making four of his team-high six sacks in the final seven games. A lot more is expected from '10 first-round rookie NT Dan Williams, who backed up 14-year veteran Bryan Robinson after being slow to adjust to the pro level initially. Williams improved as the year wore on, showing an ability to beat top centers like Carolina's Ryan Kalil. He took on more double-teams and did his best work near the goal line for a defense that was the league's best inside the red zone. But Williams must improve his assertiveness off the snap in the same manner as Dockett. With backups Alan Branch and Gabe Watson signing elsewhere, the primary reserves on the line appear to be veteran free-agent additions Nick Eason and Vonnie Holliday, who will see action both inside and outside; Kenny Iwebema; sixth-round rookie David Carter; and undrafted rookie Ricky Lumpkin.
Linebackers: The Cardinals' LB unit will probably look a lot different in 2011, with few sure bets to return as starters. A three-way battle for the starting ILB jobs is expected between free-agent addition Stewart Bradley and holdovers Paris Lenon and Daryl Washington. Bradley, who signed a five-year deal and can play either inside position, returned to the Eagles last year after missing the '09 season with a knee injury and finished third on the team with 60 tackles. Lenon made a team-high 125 tackles in '10 and quickly absorbed the Cardinals' 3-4 scheme after coming from the Rams' 4-3 defense. Washington, the Cardinals' second-round draft pick last year, has great speed, but he tends to overpursue and get swallowed up by blockers and needs to put on about 10 pounds. OLBs Joey Porter and Clark Haggans are both 34 years old and have seen better days. Porter, who agreed to a pay cut, had five sacks last season but only one in his first five games. Haggans had five sacks despite missing three games with a sports hernia that was surgically repaired this offseason. They figure to be pushed hard by second-year pro O'Brien Schofield, fourth-rounder Sam Acho and third-year pro Will Davis. Schofield, the team's fourth-round draft pick last year, tore his left ACL in a 2010 Senior Bowl practice and did not make his presence felt until well into his rookie season. Schofield has a great work ethic and natural pass-rushing skills (12 sacks and 24½ tackles for loss as a senior at Wisconsin), and the Cardinals are anxious to see how he will do without having to wear a knee brace. Acho's best qualities are his nonstop motor and superior intelligence. Davis, who was placed on injured reserve after fracturing his left fibula in Week 11, has some talent, but he has had a real problem staying healthy. Sixth-rounder Quan Sturdivant adds depth inside.
Defensive backs: Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt has an aversion to starting rookies right away, but he figures to eventually make an exception in the case of first-round draft pick Patrick Peterson, who will be counted on to replace the departed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as the team's top cover corner. Peterson is considered a shutdown defender with excellent size, speed and athleticism. The other starting corner will be either incumbent Greg Toler or free-agent addition Richard Marshall. Toler, who replaced Bryant McFadden as the starting right cornerback last season, suffered his share of breakdowns last season but continues to have a strong upside. Toler hurt his knee in the third preseason game, and his status for Week One was unknown at presstime. Marshall started in every game for Carolina the last two years. He is a consistent performer who has never missed a game in his career. The secondary suffered an early blow when veteran SS Adrian Wilson suffered a torn biceps early in training camp. Wilson, who was voted to his third straight Pro Bowl despite a subpar 2010 campaign, believes he can play through the biceps injury the same way he played despite a torn abductor last season. But with no guarantees he will be able to do so, the starting strong safety could become either former third-rounder Rashad Johnson or holdover reserves Hamza Abdullah or Matt Ware. FS Kerry Rhodes was the Cardinals' best overall defender last season. An every-down player with a big-play flair, Rhodes registered a career-high 111 tackles and was the only player in the league with at least four interceptions and four fumble recoveries. Feisty nickel CB Michael Adams, who played pretty well for a spell in place of Toler, and second-year pro A.J. Jefferson, who is currently starting ahead of Peterson on the left corner, figure prominently in the mix.
PK Jay Feely had more than 100 points for the third year in a row — including a 25-point barrage in a Week 14 win over Denver highlighted by a TD run following a fake field goal — and missed only three field goals all season. Australian native Ben Graham is a reliable directional punter, but he can no longer boom his punts and could be challenged by veteran pickup Dave Zastudil. Despite missing three games, LaRod Stephens-Howling led the league with 1,548 yards on kickoff returns, including TD returns of 102 yards against Oakland and 96 yards against Minnesota. Andre Roberts will likely handle punt returns, with Patrick Peterson possibly entering the mix on special occasions. Fifth-round FB Anthony Sherman is expected to be a special-teams stalwart.
If Kevin Kolb fails to pick up the slack under center, head coach Ken Whisenhunt could have a difficult time hanging on to his job.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.