|Matt York / Associated Press|
|The Cardinals struggled replacing Kurt Warner, sending out three ineffective QBs in 2010, including rookie Max Hall.|
As we approach the NFL Scouting Combine, the Arizona Cardinals have become a team to monitor. Their Super Bowl XLIII appearance and follow-up playoff berth in 2009 seem like ancient history after last season's woeful 5-11 finish.
The Cardinals have struggled to replenish the talent that left, either voluntarily or otherwise, after the team's successful two-season run through the NFC West. Arizona will need to draft well and add younger, more impactful free agents to challenge for a playoff berth.
Recent drafts have been OK, but some picks, like 2009 first-round selection Beanie Wells, have done little to make a convincing argument that help is on the way. Things haven't gone too well in other areas, either. Last offseason, Arizona lost safety Antrel Rolle and linebacker Karlos Dansby in free agency, quarterback Kurt Warner to retirement and traded wideout Anquan Boldin. The replacement parts didn't come close to occupying those voids, which is why only Carolina finished with a worse record in the NFC.
Then there's the quarterback issue. When Warner retired a year ago, Arizona figured Matt Leinart, who never curried favor but was selected in the first round to one day be the starter, could finally live up to projections. He was cut in favor of former Browns starter Derek Anderson, who was viewed as, at worst, an adequate bridge until rookies Max Hall or John Skelton developed. Anderson was everything but adequate and Hall and Skelton were forced into action. Neither was ready.
More than once the question was asked, "Was Leinart really that bad?"
With the quarterback issue still unresolved, the Cardinals face many of the same questions that arose after the veteran exodus/purge last offseason.
1. What to do at quarterback?
Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb said he was flattered by Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald mentioning him as a possible option. That could be a start, but hopes better be tempered. Prying Kolb from Philadelphia could come at a hefty price as the Eagles don't seem overly inclined to make a deal. Whoever trades for Kolb might also have to extend his contract in the near future since it expires after the 2012 season.
That could be a gamble since we really don't know what Kolb can do.
Arizona likely won't be in the market for Washington's Donovan McNabb, either. It had every opportunity to acquire him last offseason and passed. Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck and Denver's Kyle Orton are also veteran options, as is Vince Young, but there will be competition for those players as well. Fitzgerald is a nice lure, as is the Phoenix area, but the Cardinals could opt to stay in-house.
Skelton and Hall are players the Cardinals seem to like and want to develop. For that to happen, though, Arizona will have to buffer them by upgrading just about every other area of the team -- especially the running game and defense.
2. Can Wells and Hightower provide rush?
They haven't so far, that's for sure. Arizona was last in the NFL in rushing at 86.8 yards per game. Unlike the Super Bowl season, when the Cardinals also ranked at the bottom in this category, they actually wanted to run the ball in 2010.
Wells has been dogged by nagging injuries and he hasn't endeared himself. He averaged just 3.4 yards per carry and his workload decreased as the season went on. Tim Hightower was more productive and reliable. In fact, he nearly doubled Wells' production (736 yards to 397 yards) on just 37 more carries and also scored five touchdowns.
There is little doubt the tandem, with the complement of game-breaker LaRod Stephens-Howling, has the ability to be very effective. However, talent has to equal production and that hasn't come with enough consistency, especially in regard to Wells.
The running backs can't solely be blamed for the struggles. With Arizona often playing from behind and with so much instability at quarterback, defenses stacked the line of scrimmage to deny the run game. When it came to creating holes, the offensive line didn't often hold up.
More than one coach said last offseason that the offensive line would be exposed once Warner left. The play up front wasn't always up to par -- and not just in the running game. Arizona allowed a whopping 50 sacks, tied for second worst in the league.
3. Can a fresh perspective help defense?
It would be hard for things to get any worse. Arizona allowed 27.1 points per game and owned one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. Enter new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Coming from Pittsburgh, where he served as the secondary coach, you can expect the Cardinals to run more of a traditional 3-4 front. The Cardinals had been using a multiple-look front for the past few seasons, but they've acquired more prototypical 3-4 personnel and a guy who can run it.
Horton said Arizona will be a blitzing team, but he won't be able to fully deliver on that pledge until he gets a grasp of his personnel. The Cardinals have some nice players on defense and Horton could be the guy to get the most out of them.
Standout strong safety Adrian Wilson, who played below his standards last season, should thrive in this scheme. Horton will be able to use Wilson in a lot more blitz packages and in some conventional formations to help in run support. Horton has to make sure to get the most out of Darnell Dockett and fellow end Calais Campbell.
The Cardinals have to improve at linebacker, particularly on the outside, which is why they could very well be in the market to draft one high (they have the fifth overall pick). Arizona also could use some more muscle at inside linebacker, although Paris Lenon and Daryl Washington formed a nice tandem.
4. Will Fitzgerald get an extension?
All signs are pointing in that direction. His contract expires after 2011 and he could opt not to sign with an eye on hitting free agency. He has a clause in his contract that won't allow him to be franchised, so he is holding some leverage here.
Fitzgerald could wait to see what Arizona does about its quarterback situation. If nothing major happens and it looks like the team will struggle again next season, he could play things out and then hit the open market. Thing is, that's a gamble. If he has a subpar season, whether it's his fault or not, his appeal might not be as high as it once was and he could sell himself short.
Plus, all it takes is one injury to jeopardize his career, and having some financial security is always a player's main concern.
The Cardinals have to be careful, though. Should they play hardball with Fitzgerald, they'll lose him. Following a season in which they parted with so many key veterans, letting go of a player as beloved as Fitzgerald could seriously damage relations with the fan base.
5. Where to go in draft?
The early projections have the Cardinals steering toward Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller with the fifth overall pick. He would be a huge addition to a defense that needs a tough, pass rusher/playmaker. There arenât any great pass rushers in the NFC West and Miller could quickly jump to the front of the line.
Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert and Auburnâs Cam Newton would seem to be on the radar if Arizona is going to draft a quarterback. If the Cardinals go that route, they need to target a potential franchise player that can get on the field right away. Without that potential, then there really is no reason to draft a quarterback with Skelton and Hall already developmental guys.
Bolstering the offensive line and cornerback must also be top priorities.
Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.