At the start of last season no one expected the Cardinals to play in the Super Bowl. And with the start of a new season just around the corner no one expects the Cardinals to play any less competitive than they did last year.
That being said, the Cardinals will face perhaps a steeper learning curve this season. The team chose not to re-sign veteran running back Edgerrin James, who had a less than mediocre performance this past season.
However, the Cards drafted Ohio State running back Chris "Beanie" Wells with the 31st pick in this year's draft. Wells will be expected to contribute almost immediately to a team who boasted the worst running game in the NFL.
Wells will share touches with second year back Tim Hightower, who racked up 10 rushing touchdowns in his rookie season.
The Cardinals are still trying to work a deal out with wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Boldin, who recently fired his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, has made it clear that he wishes to continue playing in Arizona.
Boldin hopes to return to play alongside Pro-Bowl wide-out Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston. Breaston, in his second year out of Michigan, was a surprise last year catching 77 balls for just over 1,000 yards.
The trio made the Cardinals one of the most productive receiving corps in the league last year and will need an encore performance this season.
A major area of concern for the team going into this season should be the quarterback position. While Kurt Warner had a very solid year he isn't getting any younger. Warner, who became the third oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl, turns 38 this summer and will also undergo hip surgery.
Waiting in the wings for the Cardinals is Matt Leinart. Leinart will figure to see some action this year as the aging Warner has started more than 11 games in a season only once since 2001.
Since being drafted by the Cards in 2006 Leinart has put up less than stellar numbers and his performance has left a lot of questions to be answered. However, the coaching staff is praising his progress and Leinart seems to be the quarterback of the future for the Cards and possibly their starter at some point this season.
Defensively the Cardinals had some question marks last year but look to be an improved unit this season. The team cut defensive end Travis LaBoy and corner back Rod Hood, but added some depth selecting Connecticut defensive end Cody Brown (second round, 63rd overall) and Alabama safety Rashad Johnson (third round, 95th overall) in this years draft.
One major factor the Cards have going for them heading into this season is the "been there, done that," mentality. A young team molded and matured in a short period of time and will now take the field with an uncommon intangible—experience.
In addition to talent and experience the Cardinals also have one of the easiest schedules in the league, with their opponents having just a .441 winning percentage from 2008. It also helps that the team plays in one of the weakest divisions in football, with the 49ers, Rams and Seahawks, none of which look ready to make a run.
It's my prediction that the team will infact repeat as NFC West champs and return to the playoffs in 2009. Any prediction beyond that is just a shot in the dark.
Ultimately for the Cardinals the proof will be in the pigskin pudding. Was last year just a fluke? Will Warner stay healthy? Can a young backfield carry the load? It will be up to the Cards to show their hand in 2009.