NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps. Bucky Brooks details his visit with the Arizona Cardinals. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
WHERE IS NFL.COM?
The Cardinals hosted a night practice at Lumberjack Stadium on the campus of Northern Arizona University. The night skies were crystal clear and the temperatures hovered in the mid-80s at practice time.
1. The Cardinals' quarterback competition remains a toss-up. Kevin Kolb took the initial snaps with the first-team offense, but he is certainly not entrenched as the starter. He continues to produce up-and-down performances from the pocket, and his inability to consistently direct the offense to scoring drives leaves the door open for John Skelton to make a run at the job. As I watched Kolb at practice, it appeared that the offense was a little out of sync with him at the helm. The unit failed to string together first downs consistently, and Kolb was unable to make the key play to change the momentum. While he isn't solely responsible for the offense's inefficiency, he had a few misfires that would've led to turnovers in a game. Granted, Kolb worked extensively against the Cardinals' first-team defense -- an underrated unit with outstanding talent -- but he didn't perform like a franchise-caliber quarterback on Wednesday night.
Skelton, on the other hand, is an improvisational playmaker with a flair for the dramatic. He plays with a bit of a sandlot mentality and his willingness to take chances with the ball has produced some of the Cardinals' best plays the past two seasons. Skelton utilized those impromptu skills to make several key plays in practice. For instance, he scored on a naked bootleg during a spirited goal-line drill that was originally called as a power run in the huddle. Although Skelton kept the ball at the urging of his coaches, it is that kind of improvisation that leads to points for the Cardinals' offense. Another benefit of Skelton's carefree attitude is his willingness to test the defense with vertical throws. He repeatedly threw the ball over the top of the defense with success after eluding a free rusher in the pocket. With explosive plays valued at a premium, Skelton's ability to generate big gains could land him the starting job at the end of training camp.
2. Ryan Williams adds a different dimension to the Cardinals' offense. The versatile power back is an extraordinary runner with outstanding skills. He is ideally suited to grind between the tackles, but also possesses the speed and quickness to make plays on the perimeter. In watching Williams work at practice, I was impressed with his ability to find seams in the middle of the defense and stick his foot in the ground to explode through holes. He shows remarkable stop-and-start quickness and his decisiveness will lead to few negative runs for the offense. In addition, Williams is a capable receiving threat out of the backfield with the hands and route-running skills to catch 50-plus passes in the Cardinals' scheme. Given Williams' ability to serve as an all-purpose threat, the Cardinals suddenly have a diverse offense that can attack opponents with the run or pass from a variety of formations and personnel packages.
3. The Cardinals' defense is salty. After keying the team's 7-2 finish down the stretch last season, Ray Horton's defense is playing at a high level in camp. The unit put on a dominating performance at practice, and the prospect of finishing as a top-10 defense is certainly within reach. As I observed practice, I sensed the Cardinals were far more aggressive with their blitzes than last year. The defense constantly shifted fronts and coverages prior to the snap, and unleashed a series of five- and six-man pressures that resulted in a number of sacks. While some of the defensive success could be attributed to the offense still working out the kinks in pass protection, the majority of free rushers at the quarterback were the result of clever scheming and aggressive play design. Horton has clearly implemented more of his base 3-4 and nickel blitzes during camp, with more overload pressures coming from the weak side. This not only leads to more free hitters coming off edges, but it makes it difficult for opponents to direct their pass protection to the appropriate side in blitz pick-up due to the frenetic movement prior to the snap. With the defense also taking on a more aggressive attitude and demeanor, the combination of creative scheming and ferocity could make this a feared unit in 2012.
THE NEW GUYS
Michael Floyd: Arizona's biggest perceived offensive need was a complementary receiver to Larry Fitzgerald. Floyd certainly fills that void as a big, physical playmaker with outstanding hands and ball skills. He has been one of the standouts in camp, and Cardinals coaches are raving about his ability to contribute in the passing game. Although he has not earned the starting nod at this point, Floyd is a fixture on the outside in the Cardinals' four-receiver sets, giving opponents the unenviable task of matching up with two big receivers in spread formations. If he can continue to develop at a rapid pace throughout camp, there is no reason why Floyd couldn't tally 50-plus receptions as a rookie.
William Gay: One of the underrated signings by the Cardinals in the offseason was the acquisition of Gay. The sixth-year pro was an outstanding nickel corner for the Steelers, and gives the Cardinals a veteran cover man opposite Patrick Peterson. Gay's knowledge of the system will allow the Cardinals to implement more exotic coverages, while also adding some veteran leadership to the locker room.
"At the end of the day, you want to be the best. ... You don't want to settle for second, settle for third. I want to try and be the best cornerback in the game."
1. It is not often that a team's best player is also the hardest worker, but that is certainly the case in Arizona with Fitzgerald. He is an absolute maniac about his preparation, and it was apparent watching him work throughout practice. Fitzgerald took the field 45 minutes before his peers and went through a series of ball drills with an assistant to prepare him for the day. He continued to display his fanatical approach to preparation by running every route at game-like tempo in practice and finishing every reception with a sprint to the end zone to reinforce the importance of running hard after the catch. These subtleties not only prepare Fitzgerald for the urgency and tempo of game situations, but they set a strong example for the young players on how to approach the game like a professional. With Fitzgerald willing to show leadership through his actions, it is not surprising to see the Cardinals' young receivers making significant strides in their development throughout training camp.
2. Peterson will develop into one of the league's premier defensive playmakers due to his obsession with making plays on the ball. He spends nearly every moment of practice trying to get his hands on the ball, and it is that mentality that leads to his spectacular plays. From his pre-practice route-running session with former high school quarterback-turned-safety Kerry Rhodes to the countless ball drills conducted in defensive drills, Peterson is fascinated with turning every "touch" into a touchdown and he works to put himself in a position to make plays. In team drills, the attention to playmaking resulted in a pick six on an errant Kolb pass that Peterson snatched out of the air after jumping a curl route in the right flat. Given Peterson's diligent approach to the ball and playmaking, I would expect to see him rank among the league's interception leaders at season's end.
3. Opponents could have a difficult time matching up with the Cardinals' four-receiver package in the fall. The package features Floyd and Fitzgerald on the outside, with Andre Roberts and Early Doucet aligned in the slots. What makes the grouping difficult to defend is the possibility of Fitzgerald being used on the move from his flanker position to create stack or bunch formations and run various crossing routes over the middle. With Roberts and Doucet adept at running vertical routes from their interior alignments, the possibility of utilizing brackets to double Fitzgerald is neutralized by the fear of surrendering big plays down the field. Given the complications created by the Cardinals' four-receiver set, I would expect to see it featured prominently in the game plan when the regular season opens.
The Cardinals certainly have the look of a playoff team and are viable challengers for the NFC West crown. However, the play of the quarterback will ultimately decide their fate. With five preseason games -- starting with Sunday's Hall of Fame Game -- to determine whether Kolb or Skelton is the right man for the job, coach Ken Whisenhunt must decide if superior talent (Skelton) or savvy (Kolb) gives the Cardinals the best chance to maximize the potential of a potential sleeping giant.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.