Three Burning Questions
How big an impact will Edgerrin James have?
Both he and the Arizona Cardinals will be in uncharted waters here. He is used to playing on a Super Bowl-caliber team, and in the history of their franchise the Cardinals have never really had a player who has been labeled the "savior." Something has to give here. Either "Edge" is going to get this organization to be a lot more like him or he will fall into the trap of other Cardinals free agents and become more like the organization. The Cardinal faithful better hope the latter is not the case. The bottom line is this: The Cardinals' run offense and red-zone offense were dead last in 2005, and the addition of Edgerrin James can only improve on those numbers.
In 2005 the Cardinals' offensive line ranked near the bottom of the NFL in both talent and production. They were poised to try to get better through free agency, but it was one of the worst offensive line classes in recent years. The only additions are OG Milford Brown (Houston), who was a part-time starter at best, and second-round draft pick Duce Lutui (an OG from USC). The bottom line is that if the Cards are going to get a lot better, it will come through a lot of players who were on the roster last season. One thing that will help is the addition of offensive line coach Steve Loney (Minnesota). Loney replaced the inexperienced Everett Lindsay, so his addition alone will help. Also, look for the Cardinals to try to get their best unit on the field. That means that if Lutui is up to the task, he could start at LOG, with starting LOG Reggie Wells sliding in to the center spot.
Can Carlos Dansby step up and lead the defense?
It has been a miserable offseason for Dansby. He missed most of their minicamps and organized team activities with a tweaked hamstring. After returning, he injured his hand, which will need to have surgery. He is not expected to be back until after the first week of training camp. Dansby has not been with the program mentally or physically this offseason. Now that he is expected to miss the four to six weeks, the Cardinals' defensive coaches need to wonder exactly what they'll be getting when he gets back. Will he be ready to play? Will he be in good shape? Dansby is as talented as any young LB in the NFL, but he has to show up and want to be one of the best young LBs in the NFL. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast would like to build his scheme around Dansby and make him the featured player, but at this point they are starting to tire of his nonchalant attitude. With very few superstar players to rely on defensively, it will be important for them to get Dansby back healthy and ready to go both physically and mentally.
The player under the microscope
While they have a few players that fall under this category, it has to be RB Edgerrin James. This team has never had a player that was the true face of the organization. The Cardinals have a new RB and a new stadium, and that combination has them selling out games for the first time in the franchise's history since coming to Arizona. James will be under immense pressure to produce from Day One. What we forget sometimes, though, is that he will not be able to do it alone, and that is why the play of the offensive line will be huge. If the Cardinals can get to the next level, it will be because of James; if they don't, he will also be the guy who could take the brunt of the blame.
Rookie TE Leonard Pope. The main weakness in the Cardinals' vaunted passing attack has been the lack of a TE who can make consistent plays in the passing game. Pope is an athletic TE who can stretch the middle of the field, something that has been missing in their offense. He is a huge target, which will pay dividends for a Cardinals offense that ranked dead last in red-zone offense last year. With excellent young WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin on the outside, Pope should get plenty of opportunities to make plays in the passing game.
Comeback player of the year
Second-year DC Antrel Rolle. Rolle played well last season when he was healthy, but that was not nearly often enough (he played in only five games last season). He also had another surgery in May to clear out some loose debris in the same knee, but the defensive staff is hoping the latest scope will finally get him on track. Rolle is a big DC with long arms, and he is extremely physical. With marginal depth at the position, the Cards desperately need him to get healthy and play well. Rolle is a tough DC who is itching to get back on the field. Call it a hunch, but I think he is ready to step up and fulfill the expectations the organization has for him.
The Cardinals feature a wide-open offense. Their favorite formation when running or passing the ball is the three-WR package, where they align with one RB, one TE and three WRs. Dennis Green is a disciple of the West Coast offense, but along the way he has borrowed some philosophies from the old Washington Redskins offense under Joe Gibbs and the vaunted vertical passing attack employed by the Oakland Raiders in the '90s. The Cards like to use the pass to open up the run. Last season there were times when the Cardinals completely abandoned the run, but don't expect that to be the case this season with the addition of Edgerrin James. Though offensive coordinator Keith Rowan and head coach Dennis Green love to throw the football, you can expect them to be much more balanced this season.
The Cardinals' defense is one of the few in the NFL where you can turn on the tape and see something different on a weekly basis. The principles will remain the same. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast loves to bring pressure. From week to week, though, the Cards will change their defensive fronts, and that pressure will come from different areas on the field. Pendergast relies heavily on the zone blitz. Behind the blitz they will play both Cover 1 and Cover 2 depending on the matchups they get on the outside. Pendergast's schemes definitely put the secondary in jeopardy at times, but he is a big believer in making the opposing QB make a play instead of just letting him sit back and find open holes. While this philosophy has served them well vs. the pass, the same cannot be said for the run. The constant blitz packages have occasionally gotten guys out of position and opened up some pretty big holes vs. the run. Look for Pendergast to build on his scheme to be stronger vs. the run. He is an outstanding young defensive coordinator who could be in line for a head coaching job if he produces similar results and the team comes up with a few more wins.
Jeremy Green is director of pro scouting for Scouts Inc. He has been an NFL scout for 11 years, including two as director of pro personnel for the Cleveland Browns.