Coach Ken Whisenhunt (left) and general manager Rod Graves addressed the media at the Scouting combine Saturday.
INDIANAPOLIS – The storylines about Matt Leinart or Anquan Boldin aren't going to fade this offseason, and will likely prove to be the arcs that hold the most national interest around the Cardinals.
But the direction of the 2010 season will likely be charted with how the defense eventually is constructed.
"(Defense) is an important part, we all saw that at the end of the year," coach Ken Whisenhunt said Saturday during his time in front of the media at the NFL Scouting combine. "The last two games we gave up a lot of points and a lot of yards. The one thing I'm encouraged about is I did see improvement with our defense as the year progressed. … I think that's something we certainly will want to continue to improve."
Free agency could take a toll on the unit as currently constructed. Linebacker Karlos Dansby is unlikely to return after some team gives him a large offer. Safety Antrel Rolle – due a $4 million roster bonus at the end of next week -- could be released if he and the team can't come to a restructured long-term contract, making him a free agent.
Linebacker Bertrand Berry retired, and fellow linebacker Chike Okeafor probably won't return either. The Cards want to re-sign free agent nose tackle Bryan Robinson, but nothing is certain.
"The main thing is we are a football team that I think is positioned correctly to withstand transition," general manager Rod Graves said. "Whether we lose Karlos Dansby or Kurt Warner, I feel Ken has done a tremendous job in instilling the right qualities and setting the proper standards for the football team. If we lose players from time to time, I feel we can keep going."
The Cardinals have made an offer to Rolle, much like they did to Dansby last offseason – money they feel reflects the players' market value. But like Dansby, Rolle has come so close to free agency that passing on the opportunity doesn't make sense.
"I realize those guys could become free agents and they are interested in what the market will bear," Graves said. "At the same time, I am confident those guys don't undervalue what they mean to our football team and their relationship with us."
Dansby would be welcomed back as long as his contract "makes sense for us." Graves said keeping Rolle, even if he moves into free agency, is a "top priority."
If Rolle were to move on, however, the Cards will have to find a replacement. Rashad Johnson, the 2009 third-round pick, was supposed to be the heir apparent, although he struggled as a rookie.
"To say we were disappointed (in Rashad), that's tough to say," Whisenhunt said. "Would we have liked for him to play better and more consistent? Yes. He has to understand in his second year the sense of urgency that if he doesn't do that, then there are going to be issues. He's still a work in progress."
Whisenhunt does feel the Cards have a find in last year's sixth-round pick Will Davis, and acknowledged it is "too early" to determine what second-round pick Cody Brown – who missed the season with a broken wrist – can bring as a pass-rushing linebacker.
Free agency will also make a difference not only in what the Cards lose but gain. If Dansby departs, it wouldn't be a surprise to have the Cards chase a couple of linebackers scheduled to be available and that once were with Whisenhunt in Pittsburgh – inside linebacker Larry Foote and outside linebacker Joey Porter.
Whisenhunt cautioned a couple of times Saturday how much time remains before the draft, and rosters are far from set. The defense may look different, but it's how it looks different that will determine its course, and that's an unknown for now.
"The next guy has to step up and play," Whisenhunt said. "What we've been trying to do is build the depth on our football team. We feel we have done that to a great degree."
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