Postcard from camp: Cardinals
The defending NFC West champs have had a physical camp with several fights
QB Matt Leinart has impressed his team as he takes over for Kurt Warner
The Cards are expected to emphasize the run behind a revamped offensive line
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Jim Trotter had to say about the Cardinals camp in Flagstaff, Ariz. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
The Cardinals summer at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where the air is thin (7,000 feet above sea level), the pine trees are towering and the temperature is relatively cool. Weather dominated the headlines the first week of camp, as rain forced the team to practice indoors three of the first four days. Players said that working on artificial turf was more taxing on their joints and muscles, but coach Ken Whisenhunt does a good job of giving his team time to recover physically. Savvy veterans further save their legs by getting around camp on Segways. The Cardinals used to practice in relative anonymity, but the two-time defending NFC West champions regularly draw good crowds for practice, even on weekdays -- and regardless of the weather.
1. The Cardinals run an extremely physical camp. Squaring-up or touching-up -- which is customary in most camps -- was not good enough. Players were hitting each other as if a game were on the line. That resulted in at least four fights or scrums. Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson attributed the increased intensity to the arrival of linebacker Joey Porter and guard Alan Faneca, free-agents who grew up in the Steelers' attacking schemes. Everyone seems to be feeding off the intensity, particularly defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, who has looked dominant at times. Porter went so far as to curse-out second-year linebacker Cody Brown in the middle of the field when Brown allowed tight end Stephen Spach to pull him around by the facemask after the two faced off.
Porter's message: "Don't accept anything from anybody, even your teammates. I don't care if he grabbed your face mask or did something dirty. Let him know that is not acceptable. You can handle it right there on the field and get it over within 30 seconds and come back in the locker room and all be on the same page. But you let anybody get away with something once, they are going to do it all the time."
2. QB Matt Leinart is in no danger of losing the starting job to newcomer Derek Anderson. There has been a lot of handwringing among Cardinals fans about how Leinart will fare following the retirement of Kurt Warner, but the 2006 first-round pick has outperformed Anderson and will have to fall on his face to be pulled from the lineup. That's not going to happen. Coaches and teammates say Leinart had a good offseason and has picked up where he left off.
"To be honest with you, Matt has really jumped out at me," said Wilson. "He's been a much more vocal leader. He wasn't like that in the past. The quarterback position is the head position; everybody looks up to it. Matt wasn't just thrown in that spot, he had to wait a while. I think he's really matured and it's showing. If he misses on a ball, he knows it's his fault and not the receiver's fault. That's just something he has really grown into."
Leinart is even showing some of his Heisman-like swagger. During practice Monday he threw a skinny post to Larry Fitzgerald that left the receiver exposed to a potentially devastating hit from Wilson, who was the deep safety. Wilson pulled off and allowed Fitzgerald to make the catch and proceed downfield. When the offense and defense changed sides of the field after the drill was over, Leinart stopped Wilson and said: "I know you could have killed him. But I've been dropping bombs on y'alls ass all day."
"To me that says that he's competing and wants to get better and he wants to win," said Wilson, chuckling. "He's definitely confident in his ability, and we're behind him. That's one thing he really needs to understand. We're behind him 100 percent."
3. There will be greater balance to the offense. Warner was most comfortable in spread formations and empty backfields, but Whisenhunt is expected to be more traditional early in the season until Leinart shows he can handle having games in his hands. Look for the running game to excel behind a reconfigured line. Second-year pro Beanie Wells says he expects to at least double his rookie stats of 793 yards and seven touchdowns, and third-year back Tim Hightower is determined not to give up his job after starting 23 of 32 games in his career.
"In the past we've predominately been a throwing team," said right guard Reggie Wells. "That was successful for us. But I think you take it personal as a linemen when you hear someone say you can't run the ball. We know what we can do, and we do understand that with a quarterback who hasn't been under center for a while we may be able to run the ball more. And we're getting after it right now."
The Cardinals suffered some major losses in the offseason: Linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Antrel Rolle left as free agents, cornerback Bryant McFadden was traded, and Warner and defensive end Bertrand Berry retired. Among the key additions were the aforementioned Faneca and Porter, as well as safety Kerry Rhodes and cornerback Tru McBride. The first three are projected to start, and McBride is battling second-year pro Greg Toler.
Top pick Dan Williams signed Tuesday and is expected to rotate with veteran Bryan Robinson at defensive tackle. Second-round pick Daryl Washington is getting a long look at linebacker. The staff likes his speed and athleticism but have some concerns about his lack of body mass. He'll need to get bigger to hold up on the inside. Third-round pick Andre Roberts out of Citadel isn't expected to make a significant contribution this year, playing behind Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Early Doucet.
Dockett beat Faneca with a low, inside rush, then tripped up Leinart with a swipe of the arm. Leinart got up and spiked the ball at Dockett, who then was pushed by left tackle Levi Brown, who came to the defense of his QB. Dockett responded with a right to the head of Brown, creating an offense-vs-defense scrum. Normally you see guys fighting for roster spots resorting to fisticuffs, but this involved two heavyweights.
"That's what it's all about," Dockett said afterward. "As much as you love your teammates, when you put the pads on, you have to try and kill them. That's what it is all about. That's the only way you can get better. You can't come out and play 80 percent and expect to win a third divisional title. It ain't going to happen. We have to treat (the offense) like they are the 49ers and they have to treat (the defense) like we're the 49ers."
1. The battle to start opposite cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is critical to the defense's success. DRC, as he is own, is one of the game's better cover corners and has the physical skills to one day be in the conversation for "best at the position" -- and will be in the conversation if he gets his mental game to match his physical skills. That means teams will likely throw away from him. Toler has the skill to be a solid starter but needs to be more consistent and focused. He ran with the first team in OTAs, but is being forced to compete with McBride for the job. He's the front-runner, but defensive coordinator Bill Davis isn't going to hand him the position.
2. The defensive line looks deep. Gabe Watson and Alan Branch both reported to camp well below their team-proscribed weights and could be ready to play up to their potential. If that is the case, Arizona will have a formidable rotation to go with starters Dockett, Robinson and Calais Campbell, and the rookie Williams.
3. The offensive line has been reconfigured from a year ago, with Brown moving from right tackle to left tackle (to replace the departed Wayne Gandy), Faneca moving in at left guard, Wells at right guard and Brandon Keith at right tackle. The only player returning to the position he played in 2009 is center Lyle Sendlein. There were questions about how Keith would hold up, but thus far the third-year pro has looked solid. If he comes through, this could be a formidable unit.
4. Offensive line coach Russ Grimm has heard the talk out of New York that the Jets released Faneca, a 13-year veteran, because he did not grade out well last season. Grimm acknowledges that Faneca is not the player he was in his fourth or fifth year, but he says Faneca is still an effective player. "Your job as a coach is to put him in the right spot," Grimm says, "and there are still some things that he does as well as ever."
Grimm added that the changes in the line had nothing to do with upgrading the running game. He added: "It's about playing the best five and creating a competitive atmosphere. This is the most competitive it's been since I've been here."
5. The defense is extremely thin at inside linebacker, particularly with Gerald Hayes expected to miss at least the first month because of back surgery. The Cardinals figure to look for help when teams start trimming rosters.
6. There continue to be questions outside the team about how Warner's departure will affect Fitzgerald, but there are no doubts within the team. Leinart and Whisenhunt both contend Fitzgerald will get plenty of touches, if not more than he has in the past. The departure of Anquan Boldin (traded to Baltimore) and the expected emergence of the running game should create more looks for Fitzgerald. "Obviously a guy like that, you're going to get the ball," Leinart said. "We've got a lot of weapons. It's my job to facilitate and get the ball out."
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