It may have been all hugs and high-fives last year during the Cardinal’s spectacular Super Bowl run but with the final whistle came a devastating 23-27 loss and a highly anticipated offseason. That was January.
This is May. Free agency and the draft came and went with few if any unexpected moves. Anquan Boldin is still on the roster, Edgerrin James got his release, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt continues to put together solid draft classes.
With June less than a week away, OTA’s already have everyone talking and training camp is just around the corner. Nothing turns teammates against each other during the summer months like the smell of open competition and the Cardinals wreak of it.
1) Running Back
Much like Leinart v. Warner during training camp last year, it’s no secret that running back will be 2009’s most publicized position battle. This off-season’s around-the-clock-talk will be about the competition for playing time between first-round draft pick Beanie Wells and the incumbent starter Tim Hightower.
Although Hightower is entering only his second season, it took him just half a season in 2008 to establish himself as the starter, stripping Edgerrin James of the title and inevitably sending him packing. Hightower clearly had that extra step James had been criticized for leaving behind in Indianapolis three seasons ago.
In his first start Hightower went off, ripping the St. Louis Rams for 109 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in week eight. He wouldn’t rush for more than 35 yards again until the playoffs. In his six regular season starts not including the game against the Rams, Hightower has averaged two yards or less in four of his starts.
Hightower’s nose for the end zone, big play capability and sure hands combined with the Cardinal’s pass happy offense, helped him fly under the radar with average play until the postseason.
Hightower would score in each of the Cardinals first three playoff games, including a big rushing performance against a stingy Carolina Panthers defense in week two. Hightower finished the game with 77 yards on 17 carries.
Hightower had a good season for a rookie, especially considering they took him in the fifth-round, but not good enough to keep the Cardinals from taking Wells with the 31st pick in the first round. At 6’1”,235 lb., Wells is a beast. Wells has big shoes to fill, considering he is being asked to step in right away for James and be the Thunder to Hightower’s Lightning.
If anyone can do it Wells can. Once he finishes classes at Ohio State in June that is. The NFL has become a two back league and Whisenhunt always get the most out of his entire roster so expect Wells to be in the mix once he gets adjust much like Hightower was last year.
Hightower better not get too comfortable at the top of the depth chart, he could be in for a taste of his own medicine.
2) Tight End
The tight end position has plenty of talent but under performed as a group last year to say the least. Cardinal’s quarterback Kurt Warner completed 401 passes last season, as a group the four tight ends who made the box score pulled in just 25 of those passes and zero touchdowns.
A two tight end team to start the season, Leonard Pope and Ben Patrick both spent significant time on the sidelines with injuries forcing the Cardinals to adjust there offensive game plan.
Relying on three and four wide receiver sets, the Cardinal’s tight ends made even less noise in the playoffs. The Cardinals ended the season with plenty of tight ends and no production, something they’ll look to change in 2009.
To address the issue the Cardinals signed free agent Anthony Becht in the off-season. Becht caught just six balls last year and was released by the Rams after one season. The journey man blocker has had back-to-back seasons with single digit grabs, starting just 13 games in two seasons.
The Cardinals are hoping Becht can return to 2003 form when he was with the New York Jets. In 2003 Becht snagged 40 passes for 356 yards. Both career highs. He also found the end zone four times.
The Cardinals showed faith in Pope, resigning him to a one-year, $1.1 million contract. After a breakout year in 2007, catching 23 balls for 238 yards and five touchdowns, Pope played in just eight games in 2008.
He finished the regular season with 9 grabs for 77 yards and a goose egg in the touchdown column. At 6’8”, 258 lb., the Cardinals aren’t ready to give up on Pope. He is a huge red zone threat, literally.
Third year man, Ben Patrick is still a Whisenhunt project as well. Like Pope, Patrick couldn’t stay on the field to make an impact. He did however score his only touchdown of the season during the Super Bowl which is enough to get invited back to camp.
Stephen Spach had been starting late in the season including a three catch, 34 yard game in the first round of the playoff against Atlanta before tearing his ACL the next week against the Panthers.
He was used primarily for blocking but he is another big body who has shown the ability to catch. If he is healthy he should be in the mix for serious playing time.
This year’s wild card will be former third-round pick Dominique Byrd who was also let go by the Rams. He had just six catches for 83 yards since 2006.
On and off the field problems kept Byrd from being a factor in the Rams offense but that doesn’t mean he can’t find a new home here in Arizona. He is a pass catching threat, something the Cardinals desperately need.
3) Defensive End
In 2009 the question isn’t who will lose playing time to Calais Campbell, but who wont. Campbell wants to start and he will get his chance to compete for the job. Campbell was selected in the second-round last year after coming out as a junior.
At 6’7”, 290 lb., Campbell’s freakish size and speed allows him to play interchangeably on the interior of the line or rush off the edge.
He is ideal for playing defensive end in the 3-4 scheme. He recorded 28 tackles in the regular season and eight in four playoff games. Campbell played up and down the defensive line last year as the Cardinals groomed him for the future. Well the future may be now.
The Cardinals cut pass rush specialist Travis LaBoy, chose not to resign veteran Antonio Smith, and Darnell Dockett is upset about his current contract situation. Not to mention the rest of the Cardinals pass rushers are getting old. Bertrand Berry, Chike Okeafor, Bryan Robinson, and Clark Haggans all have at least ten years or more of NFL experience.
Campbell will be expect to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks as well as his linemen teammates. Under performing defensive tackles Alan Branch and Gabe Watson are on a short least and Whisenhunt will not hesitate to send a message by playing Campbell ahead of them.
With the recent removal of a benign tumor from the chest of second year defensive end Kenny Iwebema, Campbell may have to carry the youth movement along the line himself.
Much like Campbell, Iwebema has size, speed and the skill to play anywhere on the line. If he is able to bounce back in a timely manner expect him to push Campbell for playing time.
The log jam on the defensive line will figure its self out as training camp progresses but having too many players to choose from is a great problem to have. It will be interesting to see if the veterans have lost a step. None of them had a stand out season in 2008 and many spent time sidelined with injuries.
Will 2009 defensive end draft picks Cody Brown (2nd round) and Will Davis (6th round) be the pass rushing answer or will their lack of size have them swimming in the free agent market much like late round tweener Chris Harrington from last year’s Cardinal draft class.
The Cardinals don’t have much room for new comers so the battle of the big men should be one for the ages. It’s no secret Whisenhunt drafts well and isn’t afraid to play rookies. Everyone will have to be on their toes as the Cardinals look to return to the Super Bowl.