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Season Picture Coming into Focus for the Cards

"Goodbye from Flagstaff" would be more appropriate as the Cardinals' time in their summer home has once again come to an end.

The Cardinals entered training camp with a lot of questions this year.  Now that the team has left Flagstaff to play their second pre-season game, it seems like a good time to take a look at the off-season that just passed.

It was by far the most tumultuous off-season in recent memory.  When you think about all that has happened, it’s really pretty stunning.  The Cardinals lost two Pro Bowl players (one on both sides of the ball),  a very likely Hall of Fame quarterback, and a team leader on defense.  Many people argued over how much the team really lost when Rolle, Dansby, and Boldin departed, but those talks waned as the debate over Matt Leinart waxed to a deafening crescendo.  Whisenhunt and Graves, however, knew there was more work to be done rather than just worry about Leinart.

The front office, therefore, engaged in some anxiety inducing, high profile flirtation with big name free agents including Joey Porter, who of course signed, and Larry Foote, who did not.  The quarterback issue, however, couldn’t stay dormant for long.  The rumor mill churned out names like Marc Bulger, Donovan McNabb, Charlie Whitehurst, and even JaMarcus Russell.  It seemed that at one point or another the media speculated that every quarterback in the NFL, available or not, might play for the Cards instead of Matt Leinart.  In the end, however, the Cardinals anticlimactically brought in veteran Derek Anderson from Cleveland.

The off-season calendar rolled on to the NFL Draft, where the Cardinals made some great selections by grabbing NT Dan Williams and LB Daryl Washington in the first and second rounds, respectively.  In addition, the Cardinals picked up a raw but promising quarterback from Fordham.

Finally, it was time for training camp and the Cardinals headed to Flagstaff.  As previously stated, there were plenty of questions to answer all around the roster.  To make matters worse, the Cardinals learned they would be thin at an already weak ILB position without Gerald Hayes.  In addition, they had to find a CB to play opposite DRC, figure out the offensive line, find a 4th wide receiver, and establish a punt returner.

To determine whether the Cardinals answered these questions, here’s a Training Camp Awards-type analysis of how things went down in Flagstaff this year.

  • Top Veteran of Training Camp – Paris Lenon, ILB: Although his name hasn’t come up a lot, Paris Lenon had a great training camp, which has thankfully provided some stability to the questionable ILB core.  The journeyman player has impressed Coach Whisenhunt through his effort and intensity.  Whisenhunt praised Lenon by saying “Paris has been, I don’t want to say a surprise, but has performed very well and I am as pleased with Paris as anyone on our team, just from the standpoint of what he brings to the table.  I thought from having played against him a couple of times that he was a good player, but I didn’t realize all the intangibles he brings to the table that makes him such a great fit for us.”  This is certainly welcome news for the Cardinals.
  • Top Rookie of Training Camp – Daryl Washington, ILB: The Cardinals second-round draft pick has had an outstanding pre-season.  Off all the rookies, Washington seems the most NFL ready.  In his first taste of the pre-season, Washington compiled 13 tackles and recovered a fumble.  He was flying all over the field and his play gained national media attention in a non-nationally televised game.  He’s not a starter per se, but he should see a significant amount of playing time if this effort continues.  Washington’s great camp is also very welcome news for the ILB core, the Cardinals’ defense, and the Cardinals as a whole.
  • Top Offensive Player of Training Camp – Tim Hightower, RB: This was a tough call because the offense, as a whole, isn’t looking that great these days.  Despite that, Hightower has been working very hard this off-season.  He’s running with authority and still seems to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder regarding Beanie Wells possibly taking his starting position, which is great for the Cardinals.  Whisenhunt explained that “Tim is versatile, he’s tough, and he runs well with the ball.  [W]e have a lot more information about Tim in different situations than we do with Beanie … Beanie’s got to earn that.”  Hightower seems to have earned the respect of Coach Whisenhunt.
  • Top Defensive Player of Training Camp – DRC, CB: Despite tearing up his knee in last season’s divisional round loss, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has battled back and had a great training camp, which makes him all the more impressive.  Not only is he playing at a high level, but he’s really taken some of the younger CBs under his wing.  He’s still not quite 100%, but you really wouldn’t know it by watching him play.  He seems as fast as ever and has not hesitated to make cuts on his rehabilitated knee.  DRC is going to be more important than ever this season so it’s good to see him off to a fast start.
  • Surprise Rookie of Training Camp – Stephen Williams, WR: The undrafted rookie wide receiver out of Toledo has turned a lot of heads during training camp.  He’s reportedly been making catch after catch during practice and stands a good shot at upsetting a few people by grabbing the fourth wide receiver spot.  He’s still young and has not been tested by another team’s starting defense, but he should get plenty of playing time in tonight’s game against Tennessee.
  • Draft Pick “Bust” During Training Camp – Andre Roberts, WR: One wide receiver’s good fortune is another’s disappointment.  It’s still early, but the Cardinals’ third-round selection’s training camp hasn’t gone well to date.  He’s consistently dropping passes and is having difficulty adjusting to the NFL level.

So, it seems the ILB core looks a lot stronger than it did heading into camp, which is a great sign and a huge relief.  Some of the starting positions, however, are still a bit unsettled and must be decided by the players’ performance during the remaining pre-season games.  Let’s take a look at some position battles that are still at issue for the Cardinals.

  • Right Tackle – Brandon Keith vs. Herman Johnson: Keith has the clear edge and will most likely start, but he’s looked shaky at times during training camp and during the first pre-season game.  Keith definitely must clean up his act, but the untested Herman Johnson isn’t really a viable option.  Johnson is really there to just push Keith along to be a better player.  Expect Brandon Keith to win this “battle.”
  • Right Guard – Reggie Wells vs. Deuce Lutui: Wells is the incumbent, with Lutui pushing for playing time.  The problem with Lutui, as you may remember, is that he held out on the Cardinals and then showed up for training camp weighing nearly 400 lbs.  Lutui is the more talented guard, but his weight isn’t where it should be, according to Whisenhunt.  Expect Wells to win this battle until Lutui gets his weight under control.  If Deuce does so quickly, he may give Wells an earnest battle for the position.
  • 4th Wide Receiver – Stephen Williams vs. Andre Roberts vs. Onrea Jones vs. Ed Gant: As you can see, this position is pretty wide open.  As previously mentioned, Stephen Williams seems to be leading the pack due to Andre Roberts’ early struggles.  Onrea Jones, who has spent time on the Cardinals practice squad last year, also has a shot at grabbing the last spot on the wide receiver depth chart.  Ed Gant, who’s still recovering from a sprained foot, doesn’t really have much of a shot at all.
  • Inside Linebacker – Daryl Washington vs. Monty Beisel vs. Reggie Walker: Veteran Monty Beisel is the current starter, but rookie Daryl Washington is charging hard to take whatever playing time he can get.  Reggie Walker has been hindered by an injured hamstring and Whisenhunt is still eager to see what he can do at full strength.  Expect Beisel to remain the starter, but Washington should continue to take more and more playing time away from him.  Walker has a slim chance of seeing any significant playing time.
  • Cornerback – Greg Toler vs. Trumaine McBride: Toler is the clear front-runner and has played pretty solidly, though he’s definitely had his ups and downs.  McBride’s play has been somewhat surprising, but he did start for the Bears previously in his career so he has some experience.  Expect Toler to line up opposite Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie when the regular season starts, unless he has a pretty significant melt down.
  • Third String Quarterback – John Skelton vs. Max Hall: Skelton is obviously off to a great start, but undrafted BYU product Max Hall is having a very nice training camp.  He’s a smart player with defense reading capabilities that are reportedly beyond his rookie experience level.  Hall will hopefully get a chance to show what he has at some point during the pre-season, but expect Skelton to remain the third option at quarterback for the foreseeable future.
  • First String Quarterback – Matt Leinart vs. Matt Leinart: Obviously this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it’s basically the truth at this point.  Anderson hasn’t shown the Cardinals any reason to seriously consider him at quarterback.  As a result, Leinart appears to be battling himself.  He needs to step up and take control of this offense, which has plenty of weapons.  He doesn’t have a viable option behind him so it’s all up to the former Heisman trophy winner.

Enjoy the game tonight everyone.

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