Welcome to the first of 32 NFL team previews that we'll be running up until the start of the regular season. Baseball's no fun from now until September, and we can only watch old NFL highlights on YouTube for so long before we need to start prognosticating on the '06-'07 NFL season. Fall can't come soon enough.
Tom's Take: The theme of this offseason has been, strangely enough, perennially awful franchises trying harder than ever to better themselves for a chance at the playoffs. The Cardinals represent this movement better than anyone else. Although Dennis Green has been slowly turning the corner with the team for two years, his third season as Cardinals coach seems to be one that could potentially produce exciting results for the dozens of fans in Arizona. The move that grabbed headlines was obviously the signing of Edgerrin James, which upgrades the Cardinals horrific 2.8 YPC from last season. But the draft is where the Cardinals will get the most contribution. Their first four rounds were the best in the league.
Kurt Warner will stay upright just long enough to let Leinart adjust to the NFL -- he's got the smallest learning curve of the three first-round QBs, and will sit for no more than a season (but more likely until Week 9 or so, depending on Warner's health). Arizona's got an awfully easy schedule, and they'll put up enough points to win some games that maybe they shouldn't. Besides the best 1-2 WR combo in the league and the addition of James, the Cards added Leonard Pope at tight end and used their second round pick to grab USC RG Deuce Latui, who'll become an immediate starter and pair with free agent LG Milford Brown to improve a below-average Arizona offensive line.
Surprisingly, the Cardinals have already been a stellar defensive unit, ranking in the top 10 in total defense in each of the last two years. The only true weak spot on this edgy, aggressive defense is at linebacker, where Karlos Dansby will look to expand upon a versatile and productive rookie season but where the other two spots are questionable. Darryl Blackstock could move from the SAM (where he sits behind Dansby on the depth chart) to the WILL where he should easily overcome Orlando Huff for the starting spot. Blackstock is intriguing, having come from a school with a strong linebacker pedigree, but he got minimal playing time in his rookie year. No one knows what to expect from him with such an increase of downs.
Depending on when/if Leinart steps in this season, the Cardinals should be penciled in for a wild card spot and a 9-7 record. If Kurt can stay upright long enough to limit the NFC West to a two-team race with the Seahawks, they'll make the playoffs. If he can stay healthy for the entire season, the Cardinals might surprise some people and win the division outright. Warner isn't as good as he was with the Rams, but he proved last year that his time with the Giants wasn't entirely representative either. At times he looked downright explosive airing it out to Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, any aging QB's dream tandem. This could be the year the Cardinals make the playoffs and improve their 2-5 all-time postseason record.
Kyle's Take: The Arizona Cardinals are just as big of a question mark as any team. They didn't do too well last year, but showed some promise. They have some hot young receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. In fact, they were first in total yards received (4723 yards) and receiving yards per game last year. Looking ahead, they can only get better. Sure, Kurt Warner is a risk in the pocket. He makes bad decisions when the pressure is on. Denny Green has named Warner as his #1, but he'll get hurt eventually. After him on the depth chart, first round pick Matt Leinart was a steal at #10. He's a Heismann winner who played with confidence in college and expects to win. That can be a great asset if he brings that never-give-up attitude to the game.
It's almost ironic that the team that was first in passing YPG and yards per catch was dead last in rushing YPG (71.1) and YPC. I know -- I had both JJ Arrington and Marcel Shipp on my fantasy team at one point. No wonder I finished in the basement. Obviously, they've improved at running back with the Colts star Edgerrin James (although Indy was only 16th in the league in rushing YPG last year). Nonetheless, Edge was 5th in total rushing yards. James is a definite improvement, but he won't have the offensive line that he had in Indy. Obviously, you can tell by the poor rushing totals and the fact that Warner was sacked 23 times in 10 games that their offensive line was weak. Warner should have sent his hospital bills to his offensive line.
Deuce Lutui's protected for Leinart before and he'll do it again. They have a new o-line coach, Steve Loney, who handled the same duties for the Vikings for four years before getting the heave with the rest of Tice's staff. If you remember, the Vikings lost many RBs because of injury and it always seemed the next one kicked as much ass as the one prior. Whether it was Michael Bennett, Ontario Smith, Mewelde Moore, or Moe Williams, the Vikes picked up yards on the ground. It looks like Arizona's running game will get better. In fact, their whole offense is going to start to become downright deadly when all the pieces finally come together.
Defensively, Arizona allowed 295.6 yards per game to their opponents, but 26th in points allowed (which is what really counts.) We can expect their offense to take some pressure off the defense. When Warner is finally on the bench, his pressure interceptions and fumbles will give the other teams less scoring opportunities.
I think the Cards have a good shot to sneak into the playoffs. They're in a division that's one big question mark. The Rams remade their team completely and you can't know what to expect from them. Will Seattle suffer from the Superbowl Losers Hangover? Will the 49ers ever get better? It's a wide-open division and it's possible the Cards can beat up against the weak defenses in order to try to take a wild card spot. However, if they do make it to the playoffs, they won't be there for long. They don't have the defense to win those tight playoff games, although the offense will make it exciting.
The Cardinals are a good respresentation of what the entire NFL is: a huge question mark after an offseason that saw the whole league shuffle the deck, with lots of new parts in new places.