The Cardinals went 8-8 last season and completed only their third non-losing season since moving to Arizona in 1988. Rookie head coach Ken Whisenhunt led the Birds to a three-game improvement over the previous campaign, and with six of the team's eight losses by seven points or fewer, things could have been even better with a few breaks.
Whisenhunt preached smash-mouth football when he arrived in the desert, but that proved to be a mirage. He said before the season that Arizona would run 60 percent of the time. The Cardinals, however, ended up passing 60 percent of the time and ranked 29th in the NFL with 90.0 rushing yards per game.
Arizona has a tremendous amount of skill on offense, especially at the receiver position, where Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin bring Pro Bowl credentials. Boldin reeled in a career-high nine touchdown passes last year despite a hip injury that cost him four games and limited him in several others. Fitzgerald tied his career highs in receiving yards (1,409) and touchdown receptions (10).
Quarterback Kurt Warner resurrected his career with 27 touchdown passes in 14 games (11 starts), his highest totals in all three categories since 2001. Warner played so well - and previous starter Matt Leinart so badly - that the two platooned in Weeks 3-5. After Leinart went down with a season-ending collarbone injury in Week 5, Warner started the final 11 contests. Leinart enters training camp with a slim lead, but this should be one of the NFL's hottest training camp battles.
After averaging 4.1 yards per carry or more in six of his previous seven NFL seasons, starting running back Edgerrin James has averaged 3.6 over the last two seasons. He will turn 30 in August and has clearly lost a step. Couple that with an unspectacular offensive line and an uncertain goal-line role and James is a risky pick, although offseason rumors of a time-share were overblown.
On defense, the Cardinals have plenty of potential, if not strong statistics. The unit allowed 24.9 points per game in 2007 (27th-best in the league) and was burned for 232.2 passing yards per contest (28th in the NFL). Rush defense was a strength; the Cards held opponents just under 100 yards per game and ranked ninth in this category. Safety Adrian Wilson made the Pro Bowl in 2006, and Karlos Dansby and Gerald Hayes are two young cornerstones at linebacker. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett was inconsistent but made the Pro Bowl in 2007 on the strength of a strong first half.
The Cardinals are clearly headed in the right direction and could be a 10-win team if all goes well in 2008. Potential pitfalls are the quarterback controversy, Edgerrin James' age and the Cardinals' trouble keeping opposing teams out of the end zone.
Travis LaBoy, DE (Titans)
Has recorded 16 sacks over the past three seasons in part-time duty. Could approach double digits if he holds onto his projected starting role.
Clark Haggans, LB (Steelers)
Should compete for a starting role; has familiarity with the coaching staff.
Jerame Tuman, TE (Steelers
Should provide a veteran presence, knowledge of the system and strong blocking ability.
Calvin Pace, LB (Jets)
Possible young cornerstone became too expensive.
Bryant Johnson, WR (49ers)
Cards couldn't afford to keep him as third wideout.
Terrence Holt, S (Panthers)
Underachieved in 2007; not a big loss.
THE GREAT QB DEBATE
Quarterback controversies always make for good stories, and Arizona's battle between Matt Leinart and Kurt Warner should be an especially interesting one. In one corner, you have the 37-year-old Warner, a pious, grizzled veteran. He was undrafted out of Northern Iowa and spent time in the Arena League before becoming a two-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl XXXIV MVP. In the other corner, you have the 25-year-old Leinart, a top prospect and noted party boy. He went 37-2 as a starter at USC, won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship and was drafted in the first round two years ago. Leinart enters training camp with a slim lead over Warner, but coach Ken Whisenhunt won't be afraid to make a change or even to platoon the two signal callers, as he did early in 2007. You need to handcuff these guys on draft day, but even that might not be enough if Whisenhunt alternates series like he did at times last season.
There are lots of things not to like: He will turn 30 in August, his offensive line isn't very good, his recent touchdown totals are about half of what they were at his peak, and his yards per carry numbers in 2006 and 2007 rank among the bottom three in his nine-year NFL career. The good news is that despite all of his faults, James gets the ball a lot (only Clinton Portis had more carries last year). James rushed for 1,222 yards last season, seventh-most in the league and his fifth straight year over 1,100. The biggest key from a fantasy perspective is his goal-line role. James has not been effective in these situations over the last two years, and if Marcel Shipp or someone else wrestles this role away from him, James' fantasy stats could be very marginal.
LIFE IS LIKE A BOX OF CHOCOLATES
Other than Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, fantasy owners have little idea what they're going to get from the Cardinals. The quarterback and running back positions are very unsettled, and the tight end and kicker situations are also murky. Leonard Pope is an intriguing option at tight end because of his red-zone ability (he made five touchdown catches in 13 games - 11 starts - last season), but he doesn't get the ball a lot and he's not an every-down player. The third wideout position is an interesting battle because the Cardinals throw so much. Rookie Early Doucet is the front-runner in a battle that also includes Jerheme Urban, Ahmad Merritt and others. And at kicker, Neil Rackers benefits from a strong offense and great home field conditions but has been cold from long range over the past two seasons (5 of 18 from 49 or more yards).
Rising: Anquan Boldin is a proven talent, but he will be undervalued in many leagues after an injury-plagued 2007 campaign.
Supersleeper: Marcel Shipp scored four goal-line touchdowns in 2006 but received few goal-line opportunities in 2007. If Edgerrin James continues to struggle near the goal line, Shipp could vulture some TDs in 2008.
Adrian Wilson, S
Sacks are declining but still an elite option. Should be back to full strength after 2007 Achilles' injury.
Karlos Dansby, LB
Well-rounded IDP still on the rise at age 26. Should be motivated in contract year.
Darnell Dockett, DT
Nine sacks last year, but one in last eight games. Should benefit from a healthier supporting cast.