Cardinals: Improvement will be evident Roger Kuznia Sporting News
WHERE THEY STAND The one constant with the Cardinals is that they've always needed more time to turn around their eternally awful franchise. But a state-of-the-art stadium, a new head coach and the continued maturation of their offensive skill players have conspired to make this Cardinals team one that could finish at or above .500 for only the third time in the past 22 years.
Unlike his former girlfriend (Paris Hilton), Matt Leinart is a legitimate star in the making, and his 11-game stint as the starter in 2006 will help him more quickly attain a comfort level this season in the loaded Cardinals' offense.
The big thing the Cardinals still lack is a good offensive line. However, Russ Grimm, a former "Hog" back in the 1980s for the Redskins, is now in charge of the line and should whip this group into shape.
One thing we wish the Cardinals still had is coach Dennis Green. Yes, Ken Whisenhunt should be an improvement, but nobody could pound a podium and shout expletives quite like Green.
Projected draft round Player Round Matt Leinart, QB 6-7 Edgerrin James, RB 2 Marcel Shipp, RB 16 Larry Fitzgerald, WR 3 Anquan Boldin, WR 4 Leonard Pope, TE DND Neil Rackers, K 16 Defense/special teams DND Draft position based on a standard 12-team combined scoring and yardage league with a 17-round draft. DND: Do not draft.
Key additions: S Terrence Holt, CB Rod Hood. Key losses: S Robert Griffith, WR Troy Walters.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR. Last season was disappointing for Fitzgerald owners. The emerging star had just two 100-yard games and six touchdowns in 2006 -- far below the seven 100-yard games and 10 scores he had as a rookie. You can blame his struggles on a hamstring strain that cost him three games in October. Optimism should be high in '07, however, because Matt Leinart has plenty of games as a starter under his belt and knows what Fitzgerald can do. Fitz is a great red-zone threat, as evidenced by the four touchdown receptions he had in five December games.
Adrian Wilson, SS. Wilson's beauty comes from his ability to do it all for IDP leaguers. He registered 82 tackles, five sacks, four interceptions and a touchdown last season, which is why he enters 2007 as IDP's top ranked defensive back. His ability to be all over the field just makes him that valuable.
Anquan Boldin, WR. Here's why Larry Fitzgerald is more valuable than Boldin: Fitzgerald had four December touchdowns, and Boldin had zero. Tell me, whom does Matt Leinart clearly favor? Boldin is a great complementary receiver, but he is not a No. 1. Even when Fitzgerald was out for those three games in October, Boldin was essentially shut down in two of the contests. This is the season in which I think Boldin's yardage total will drop a bit, provided Fitzgerald stays healthy. But Boldin is still a No. 2 option.
Edgerrin James, RB. Here's a study in the importance of an offensive line for you. In James' final three seasons with the Colts, he averaged no less than 4.1 yards a carry. In James' first season with the Cardinals, he averaged 3.4. The poor offensive line sure made James look slow. I mean, when your longest carry of the year goes for 18 yards, it shows just how much of a difference it makes having a good supporting cast around a running back. The Cardinals' line did improve over the final two months of the season, especially in December, when James notched three 100-yard games and three touchdowns. There still is gas left in James' tank, and he is still a No. 2 fantasy back.
Matt Leinart, QB. Leinart had a typical rookie season -- one that demonstrated some skill but also demonstrated his inexperience. In his 11 games as the starter, Leinart threw as many interceptions (11) than touchdowns. Leinart reportedly bulked up this offseason in an attempt to better withstand a 16-game season, and his work has been lauded by the coaching staff. In my opinion, Leinart is a full year away from joining the fantasy elite at his position, but there's no doubt he is a player on the rise -- and a good mid-round value at QB.
Neil Rackers, K. The difference between Rackers' unbelievable 2005 campaign and his subpar 2006 was his inability to convert from long distance. Rackers was only 1-for-7 on attempts from 50-plus yards in 2006, compared to 6-for-7 in 2005. Beyond that, Rackers missed only three other kicks all season, which shows that he still is a pretty good kicker. That's why we have Rackers ranked as a four-star option. He still is reliable and plays for an up-and-coming offense. Just don't reach to get him.
None. 2-Star Players
Bertrand Berry, LB. Berry clearly is a good player when healthy. He had a career-high 14.5 sacks in 2004, but triceps and pectoral injuries have cut short his seasons the past two years. In addition to his position switch (from defensive end to outside linebacker), there are just too many unknowns with Berry to really count on him as a legit IDP performer. Just wait until the season starts to see how he does.
Chike Okeafor, LB. This Purdue grad has been a consistent performer the past three years, the past two coming with the Cardinals. However, do note that 6.5 of his 8.5 sacks a year ago came in December. It has been otherwise difficult to predict when Okeafor will do his best work. His position switch (from lineman to linebacker) also makes him a sizeable IDP risk.
Cardinals defense/special teams. The Cardinals have a number of IDP-worthy performers and did rank in the top half of the league in both sacks and takeaways last season, but as a whole, this unit falls flat. Arizona ranked 30th in passing yards allowed and 29th in total defense. Until Arizona can stop teams from moving the ball, this unit will continue to be just a bye-week fill-in at best.
Karlos Dansby, LB. Dansby's move from outside linebacker to inside linebacker makes him one to track. While his sack total figures to decrease with the move inside, he surely will threaten the 100-tackle mark for the first time in his career. Dansby has had health problems each of his first three years in the league, so be very aware of that as the season unfolds.
Antrel Rolle, CB. Rolle registered 85 tackles in his first full healthy season for the Cardinals, but he generated only one interception from his CB spot. Surely you can roll better than having this Rolle on your team.
0-Star Players Leonard Pope, TE. If Benedict XVI is a Cardinals fan (how couldn't he be?), I'm sure his favorite player is Pope. However, despite being 6-8, 265 pounds, Pope isn't a threat to break a big play. He is a more of a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust type of player. The Cardinals have far too many other weapons to get Pope a share that amounts to anything for fantasy owners.
Marcel Shipp, RB. With Edgerrin James in town, Shipp had 101 total yards in all of 2006. The only way he'll have value is if James' ship sinks because of injury. Shipp is a final-round flier at best.
Ultimate Fantasy Football Tip: The Cardinals face four good defenses to start 2007, so it's best not to consider any Cardinals options until Week 5 against the Rams. At that time, Larry Fitzgerald will be worth considering despite his $6.5 million price tag. It's conceivable that his value will drop initially because of the Cardinals' tough schedule, so Fitz could look even better price-wise in Week 5.
TO KNOW LIST Coaching: Ken Whisenhunt was known for trick plays during his time as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator. Remember the Antwaan Randle El-to-Hines Ward pass in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks? Look for Whisenhunt to fully utilize all of the big weapons in Arizona's offense, despite the Steelers' penchant for running the ball. Whisenhunt has an extremely talented group in the passing game with which to work. Defensively, the team still will blitz a lot, which makes for big plays, but it also gives opponents chances to burn Arizona. At least the Cardinals are fun to watch.
Offensive line: The Cardinals are paying Russ Grimm big bucks to be their line coach. His name has come up when NFL head coaching jobs have opened up, so there is a sense that he should be able to do the job. It will be interesting to see how much improvement this line will make under Grimm. He has one elite prospect in Levi Brown and another in Mike Gandy, whom he worked with in Pittsburgh. Guard Reggie Wells is the line's only current above-average player. As for Deuce Lutui (USC) and Al Johnson (Wisconsin), at least they come from good football schools.
Schedule analysis: Playing in the NFC West has been great the past couple of years, but each of the other three teams has as improving defense. The Cardinals still should be able to take advantage, but realize it's not getting easier. We like seeing dates against the Redskins, Buccaneers, Lions and Browns dot the schedule, which is why fantasy owners should feel comfortable drafting a Cardinal. Fantasy Strength of Schedule: 1st easiest (or 32nd toughest).