2006 Arizona Cardinals Preview

This will be head coach, Dennis Green’s third season in Arizona and the timing couldn’t be better for Green to lead the Cardinals back to the land of the respectable. The Cards have more talent right now than at any time in the last decade, with a coach who is certainly heads and shoulders above any coach the Cardinals have employed since they made their move to the desert nearly two decades ago.

Having said that, Arizona will be hard pressed to compile a winning season in the cutthroat NFC in 2006. I suspect the Cards will hover around .500 for the majority of the season before finishing with a record that could fall exactly at 8-8.

However, I will save my predictions for another column – this one is all about the Arizona Cardinals and their chances in 2006. So, away we go.

I’d take the combination of Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart over almost any other 1-2-quarterback combination in the league. Warner is a former Super Bowl winner who knows what it takes to win in the NFL. Warner may be aging, but I believe that, with adequate pass protection, he is still quite capable of leading a winning team. Whether or not he gets that pass protection, will depend on how much of Leinart we see this season.

At the very worst, the Cardinals have landed their quarterback of the future and one I believe that could be starting right now for about one-third of the teams in the league. (Hello Oakland are you listening?) If the Cardinals don’t succeed this season, it probably won’t be because of their quarterback play.

Running Back
Arizona made the biggest splash in free agency this offseason by acquiring the immensely talented – and successful Edgerrin James to man their starting halfback position.

James will immediately improve the Cardinals atrocious running game, which ranked last in the league last season rushing for just over 70 yards per game. 2005 second-round pick, J.J. Arrington, who disappointed Arizona hugely last season after an impressive training camp, will back James up and, if nothing else, should learn a thing or two from just watching the wily veteran play. Fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo is an excellent receiver out of the backfield but needs to improve his blocking to open up some holes for James.

Wide Receiver/Tight End
Young receivers, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin give the Cardinals one of the best receiving duos in the entire league. Both players are huge targets that go after the ball like it’s a falling infant. Simply put, throw the ball anywhere in the vicinity of these two, and they’re going to catch it.

Former first-round pick Bryant Johnson and last year’s seventh-round pick, LeRon McCoy, should man the third and fourth receiver slots respectively. Arizona will probably start youngster Leonard Pope at tight end.

Offensive Line
If the Cardinals can’t get some kind of adequate blocking from their offensive line, it wouldn’t matter if Arizona started Dan Marino and Walter Payton in their backfield. To be brutally honest about it, Arizona’s offensive line reminds me more of a matador than a charging bull, if you know what I mean.

Left tackle, Leonard Davis, a former No. 2 overall selection, has never come close to fulfilling all of the potential that made him such a high draft selection. Free agent, Oliver Ross, will start at right tackle (whoopee). Reggie Wells will likely stay at left guard, with Milford Brown slated to play right guard and Alex Stepanovich at center.

Until this unit begins to block like a professional offensive line, the Cards will continue to struggle – and make reaching .500 – an almost unrealistic goal.

On the other hand, if the offensive line blocks with even some sense of cohesiveness and competency, then Warner and James could both put up some eye-popping numbers in 2006.

Defensive Line
Arizona’s defensive line actually isn’t that far away from becoming a solid unit.

Defensive end Bertrand Berry was playing at a Pro Bowl level before his season-ending pectoral injury. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett isn’t necessarily a bad player, but he needs to become more assertive and consistent against the run
Arizona did sign competent free agent tackle, Kendrick Clancy to pair with Dockett while quickly improving youngster, Chike Okeafor, will start at the other defensive end position. They Cardinals also got wise by drafting defensive tackles Gabe Watson and Jonathan Lewis to add depth – and aggressive youth to what could possibly be their best unit as a whole.

How can I say this without hurting anyone’s feelings? Okay, the Cardinals linebackers couldn’t stop running water if they tried. Alright, alright, I’ll give in to the fact that strong side linebacker, Karlos Dansby is nearing a Pro Bowl level, but middle linebackers, Gerald Hayes and veteran James Darling are mediocre at best as is starting weak-side linebacker, Orlando Huff. If Arizona doesn’t get some competent play from their front seven, they could be in serious trouble.

Defensive Backs
Cornerback Antrel Rolle is the best player in the Cards’ secondary and is only going to get better with each passing game. David Macklin, the team’s other starting corner is capable, if not outstanding.

Strong safety Adrian Wilson, set an NFL record for defensive backs last season with eight sacks and appears well on his way to joining league’s elite safeties.

Arizona’s other safety, veteran, Robert Griffith, is still a very knowledgeable player even if his legs don’t get him where he needs to be as quickly as they used to.

Special Teams
This may be Arizona’s strongest unit. The Cardinals have one of the league’s beast place kickers in veteran Neil Rackers, who set an NFL-record last season with 40 field goals in only 42 attempts while punter Scott Player was a model of consistency as well.

However, Arizona may have trouble with their return game. The Cardinals couldn’t find a reliable returner last season for either punt or kickoff returns last season and no players has grabbed a firm grasp of the position during the preseason, so my guess is that the Cards’ will go with a committee of trial and error for the time being.

I’ve always liked Green – even though I think some of his talented Minnesota Vikings teams of the 90s underachieved big time. If he can coax eight wins out of this team and show that he has the Cards moving in the right direction (which I believe he does) then Green could be a candidate for the Coach of the Year award.

If Arizona doesn’t show any improvement from last season, I’m giving Green one final year (2007) to get this team in a competitive state.

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