The Arizona Cardinals are in an envious position going into training camp.
In the offseason following their Super Bowl run, the Cards lost only one major component to their 2008 success when unrestricted free agent Antonio Smith signed with the Houston Texans. Edgerrin James and Roderick Hood both received playing time, but their roster spots were upgraded through the draft and free agency.
The Cardinals' 2009 depth chart does not allow for very much wiggle room. On each side of the ball, the starting 11 is pretty much set. The battle for precious playing time goes well behind the starters. Below are five positions where a good training camp could make or break your roster spot.
Fourth Wide Receiver
The Cardinals run plenty of three-wide sets in their Kurt Warner pass-happy offense. Right now Jerheme Urban has a firm grip on the No. 4 slot with former third-round draft pick Early Doucet nipping at his heels.
The 23-year-old Doucet has youth and potential on his side when compared to the 28-year-old Urban. Doucet was slowed by a hamstring early in his rookie season and was never able to bounce back to earn any significant playing time.
The Cardinals spent the 81st overall pick on Doucet in hopes that he would push for the No. 3 spot rather than the No. 4. Doucet is going to need a strong preseason showing to make any kind of headway against the crafty Urban.
Urban’s ace in the hole is his ability to contribute on special teams. Entering his third season with Arizona, Urban knows the ins and the outs of the Cardinals offensive scheme. Last year was Urban’s best season as a pro, setting career highs in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. His 6’3" frame and strong route-running ability give him the edge over the smaller, unpolished Doucet.
The fourth wide receiver in the Cards' pecking order currently shows Urban as the favorite with the coaching staff giving Doucet a long, hard look during the preseason.
Third-Down Running Back
Is Tim Hightower an every-down back? Can Chris Wells be an effective pass blocker and catch the ball if called upon? With J.J. Arrington leaving via free agency and Edgerrin James being released, who will the Cardinals turn to in the backfield on third down?
Hightower surprised everyone with his hands last season, racking up 34 catches in the regular season. Wells on the other hand caught a total of 15 passes out of the backfield in the run-orientated Ohio State offense.
In the hunt for backfield playing time, Cleveland Browns refugee Jason Wright and rookie LaRod Stephens-Howling could fill in the role of third down play-maker with a strong showing in training camp.
Stephens-Howling is the sleeper here. The 5’7" scat back has the speed to be a change of pace back for the Cards if he can prove he has reliable hands.
There is no hiding from the stats, and the fact is the Cardinals were ranked in the bottom half of the league in pass defense last season. The secondary was in need of an upgrade and through the draft the Cardinals drafted two defensive backs: Alabama safety Rashad Johnson and small-school cornerback Greg Toler.
The battle in the secondary takes place between the wily veteran Ralph Brown and rookie fourth-round pick Greg Toler.
The 30-year-old Brown is an eight-year NFL pro out of Nebraska. This will be Brown’s third year with Arizona. He is undersized at a stretched-out 5’9" listing. He has proven serviceable, but may be better suited for a fourth cornerback role.
Greg Toler played college ball at Division II St. Paul's in southern Virginia. Toler is a long-term project because of the level of competition he faced while he was in school. He is blessed with a combination of natural size (6’0") and speed (4.4 40 time) that you can’t teach.
Depending on how fast Toler picks up the Cardinals' defensive system, he could be lining up at nickel corner in the Cards secondary before long.
It appears the Cardinals have decided to go with quantity over quality at the tight end position. The situation as it stands could only be described as a logjam, with six players vying for three or four roster spots. Some players are safer than others.
Free agent Anthony Becht and 2008 starter Stephen Spach appeared to be guaranteed roster spots. Becht is the prototypical blocking tight end. Becht will give the Big Red running game essentially a sixth offensive lineman when he lines up.
Spach wasn’t signed by the Cardinals until Oct. 28 of last season and quickly established himself as the No. 1 tight end on a team constantly struggling with injuries at that position. Spach is coming off an ACL injury he suffered against the Panthers in the playoffs and may or may not be ready for the start of the season.
The remaining group of tight ends is a mix of high draft picks and physically imposing players. Leonard Pope and Dominique Byrd are a pair of 2006 draft picks known for their pass-catching skills. Pope was re-signed to a one-year, $1.1 million deal in the offseason and should have the inside track since he is already familiar with the Cards playbook.
Like Pope, Ben Patrick was re-signed during the offseason. Patrick was never considered a good blocker and last season was marred by injury after injury. The Cards must see something in him because Patrick has given the former seventh-round pick plenty of reasons to cut him over the last two seasons.
Alex Shor, a 6’7" tight end, was not able to get off the practice squad in 2006 and 2008. For the veteran tight end, his days of wearing red appear to be numbered.
The trio of Byrd, Pope, and Patrick are all very similar and when the final cuts come in only one, maybe two will have a future with the Arizona Cardinals.
When the Cardinals let Terrelle Smith sign with the Detroit Lions in the offseason, it opened a three-horse race for the title of starting fullback. Former Pittsburgh Steeler Dan Kreider was signed in the offseason and joins Tim Castille and former Baltimore Raven Justin Green on the roster.
Castille is safe thanks to his versatility and his ability to contribute on special teams. Kreider is a hard-nosed veteran with history of working with Ken Whisenhunt and some of the coaching staff from his Pittsburgh days. The wild card is Justin Green, who signed with the team on Feb. 4.
Due to his nine years of NFL service, Kreider has to be considered the favorite to emerge as the No. 1 fullback. Green would be a younger (and cheaper) option for the Cardinals. Training camp will say a lot for both Green and Kreider. Does Kreider have anything left in the tank? Can Green bounce back after being out of football for the 2008 season?
The Cards run out of a three wide receiver set so much with Steve Breaston that the title of “No. 1 fullback” has lost some of its luster; nevertheless, the starting fullback will be called upon in short-yardage situations and when Big Red is inside its opponent’s five-yard line.
Plus, having the role of 2009 Arizona Cardinals' starting fullback is a good way to spruce up the resume.