The emergence of rookie linebacker Daryl Washington will be one of the main storylines of training camp for the Cardinals.
Training camp is upon us.
The players report to Flagstaff Friday afternoon to move into the dorms and spend the next month or so prepping away from home (including an extra week away in Nashville between the second and third preseason games). There are plenty of subplots to watch as the Cardinals try to three-peat in the NFC West. But as always, some storylines carry more import than others, so here's one view of the most crucial aspects of the process that is camp:
1. Is Matt Leinart the answer at quarterback?
The topic has already been analyzed over and over and it's only going to pick up speed as the Cards begin practices and the attention increases. National media types like ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Sports Illustrated's Peter King, among others, are scheduled to come to Flagstaff in the early days of camp and the guess is they aren't coming to focus on Steve Breaston's move into Anquan Boldin's No. 2 receiving role. No, the spotlight will be on Leinart, and what he can do in the footsteps of the now-retired Kurt Warner. Or if he can keep the job ahead of newcomer Derek Anderson, who is hoping his own fresh start will mean something. There will be those who want to make a daily determination on how Leinart is performing, but in the end, finding out if Leinart is the answer is likely a season-long process.
2. Can the Cards keep winning through their transition?
The comings-and-goings have been oft-repeated. Out are Warner, Dansby, Boldin and Rolle. In are Anderson, Rhodes, Faneca, and Porter, and rookies like Daryl Washington and Dan Williams. It's impossible to know what that means on the field, although the Cards will find out. The stability coach Ken Whisenhunt has brought to the team seems to extend through locker-room changes. The talent level hasn't withered away to the point the Cards shouldn't battle for a division crown again, and the veterans that remain from the last couple of years know it. Injuries are always a factor, but that goes for any team (if the 49ers lose Patrick Willis to an ACL tear, their defense is drastically different, right?). If the Cards can maneuver through their early-season schedule on the road and regain their home-field magic from 2008, there's no reason they can't be in the hunt even with all their changes.
3. Will the offense run though Beanie and Tim?
He seems to know no one believes him right now, but Whisenhunt insists no decisions have been made on the direction of the Cardinals' offense. It's unlikely Leinart will chuck the ball around like Warner did; No quarterback normally does that. But Whisenhunt wants to see what Leinart can do in camp before he'd succumb to three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust. The Cards will need to throw the ball to win. There is little question, however, that Beanie Wells is in position to have a big season assuming he stays healthy. The offensive line has been retooled toward a running game and a confident Wells has a year under his belt. Hightower made his imprint last season with a solid 4.2-per-carry average and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Larry Fitzgerald is still a playmaker outside but the Cards have positioned themselves to lean on the running backs if need be.
4. Where will the pass rush come from?
The Cardinals piled up 42 sacks last season, their highest total in years and they did it by committee – Defensive linemen Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell tied for the team-lead with seven. The idea in signing linebacker Joey Porter, who had nine sacks for Miami, is that he can provide more of a dynamic pass rush than what the Cards were getting last season from Bertrand Berry or Chike Okeafor. Campbell, at end in a 3-4 look, should increase his total, and Dockett comes across like a man on a mission (and in search of a new contract). Even if Porter doesn't revert to his stellar 2008 (17 sacks) he needs to be a difference-maker. The Cards also need help from someone unknown factor, whether it is Cody Brown, Will Davis, Mark Washington or Stevie Baggs.
5. How will Greg Toler do as a starter?
The day Bryant McFadden was traded, it became clear the Cards saw 2008 draft pick Greg Toler as their new starting cornerback opposite Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Heck, Toler was the favorite to start even if McFadden had stayed. But there is still a rawness to Toler's game after spending college at tiny Saint Paul's in Virginia, and that's what camp and the preseason is supposed to flush away. Other veterans like Trumaine McBride, Justin Miller and Michael Adams took turns in the offseason working with the first unit ahead of Toler. Toler still has to earn his spot. If he underperforms, the Cards will use someone else. Ultimately, they need Toler to step forward.
6. When will rookies Dan Williams and Daryl Washington step in?
The Cards don't turn to rookies early. They just haven't. Beanie Wells played little the first six weeks of 2009; DRC was massaged into the lineup by midseason of 2008. But the Cards had a little more wiggle room in those cases. Beanie was behind Tim Hightower and playing in an offense that was pass-first. DRC was behind veterans Eric Green and Rod Hood. The Cards had some time. Williams is in a potentially similar spot, given veterans Bryan Robinson, Gabe Watson and Alan Branch. The Cards may bring him along slowly. The same luxury might not be there for Washington. Already Washington was needed at a position that lacked depth and the question was whether he could quickly displace veteran Paris Lenon in the race to replace the departed Karlos Dansby. Now, with the lingering back problems of Gerald Hayes, Washington may be pressed into service even sooner. Can he prove to the coaches he is worthy? Can the Cards afford to wait?
7. What will the offensive line look like?
The Cardinals have carried eight offensive linemen on the roster the past couple of years, so the math says someone will be the odd man out in 2010. The starters this offseason, from left tackle, were Levi Brown, Alan Faneca, Lyle Sendlein, Reggie Wells and Brandon Keith. That puts Jeremy Bridges, Rex Hadnot, Deuce Lutui, Ben Claxton and Herman Johnson off the bench but in the mix. Lutui was thought to be a major factor, but that was before his weight gain and now he'll have to fight to get back into playing shape. Claxton was the backup center last year; can that be Hadnot? Wells? Maybe Johnson can take a step forward. The Cardinals feel good about the pieces they have up front. And in the end, it's better to have too many options than not enough.
8. How will the Q-less receivers do?
Larry Fitzgerald is going to be Larry Fitzgerald. And realistically, Steve Breaston and Early Doucet already have shown quite a bit in Anquan Boldin's absence – otherwise, I'm not sure the Cards would have been willing to deal their former Pro Bowler. Breaston has become everything the Cards could have hoped (but didn't count on). He's a solid receiver, tougher than expected and smart. The key here is Doucet. There was a reason he was drafted in 2008 and this is his chance to show that he can step into Boldin's shoes – if not production-wise, then at least Q's role. Doucet has also shown he can take a hit. He needs to stay healthy (particularly in training camp) but he has done enough to think the receiving corps will be OK.
9. Will Kerry Rhodes fit alongside Adrian Wilson?
Antrel Rolle was just learning how to play free safety when he bolted this offseason. He is replaced with Rhodes, a man who has been playing free safety his whole career. Rhodes works better in space than Rolle did, and while his reputation hasn't been built on lighting guys up, that's what Wilson can do. The two seemed to have meshed thus far in the offseason, and given the uncertainty (and youth) at cornerback, it'll be important for the two veteran safeties to lead the way in the secondary, both in training camp and beyond.
10. Who replaces Steve Breaston as punt returner?
With Breaston moving up to the No. 2 receiving spot, there's no way the Cards are going to let him risk himself fearlessly catching punts all season. Who steps into the spot may be a determining factor in one of the final roster spots. Many rookies have punt returning in their background -- Marshay Green, Jorrick Calvin, Andre Roberts, A.J. Jefferson, for example – and that doesn't include a veteran or two who might join the fray. Overall, the Cards only averaged 6.8 yards a punt return last season; upping that mark could also influence the season.
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