DRAFT PREVIEW – ARIZONA CARDINALS

A look at the Cardinals heading into the 2011 NFL Draft; Arizona has the 5th pick in the first round.

REVIEW OF 2010

Record – 5-11, the second worst record in the NFC behind only Carolina’s 2-14.

Finish – fourth in the NFC West, but two games behind Seattle and St. Louis that shared the division title. The Cardinals were one came behind San Francisco.

Playoffs – Not last year, but that broke a streak of two seasons with a ticket for the playoffs. It was three years ago that they somehow reached the Super Bowl, before losing to the Steelers in the fourth quarter. Over the last 11 years, they Cardinals have had two trips to the playoffs and two winning record.

OVERVIEW

Some people may have thought that the Cardinals had gotten over the hump that seemed like a huge mountain for so many years. Did the Bidwill family finally get their act together and establish something that could compete with the most powerful teams in the NFC?

For two years, the answer was yes, as they went a combined 23-15 over the 2008-09 seasons and two trips to the playoffs. Amazingly, they won post-season games each year, including that ’08 season when they played well enough to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.

They were back to struggling last year and the biggest reason can be traced to some poor personnel decisions and plans. One year they have Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart at QB. The next year, they’ve got the likes of Derek Anderson-Max Hall-John Skelton handling the position.

In 2011, the Cardinals need a big, big draft.

PARTICULARS

Offense – averaged 269.3 yards per game (ranked No. 31 or next to last in offensive yards). They scored just 19 offensive touchdowns, or just over one per game. RB Tim Hightower (153 carries for 736 yards and 5 TD runs) led the rushing attack that was the worst in the NFL, averaging just 86.8 yards per game. There was no other serious running threat. The offense’s best player remained WR Larry Fitzgerald (90 catches-1,137 yards-6 TDs), who got help only from WR Steve Breaston (47-718-1). At QB the guy who got the most opportunities was Anderson, as he threw 7 TD passes against 10 INTs. He threw for 2,065 yards and a passer rating of 65.9. Overall, the Cardinals QBs had 10 TD passes to 19 interceptions with a 60.5 passer rating. They were sacked 50 times.

Defense – Arizona’s defense gave up an average of 373.6 yards per game, bad enough to rank No. 29 in the league. They gave up an average of 145 rushing yards per game – likely why opponents had a 7-minute, 30-second advantage on time of possession. They allowed 41 touchdowns and forced 30 takeaways. S Kerry Rhodes led the team with four interceptions, while CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had three picks and two that he returned for touchdowns. Arizona managed 33 sacks, led by DE Calais Campbell with 6 sacks.

Special teams – K Jay Feely had a nice season, missing only 3 field goal attempts on the season and he was perfect inside the 49-yard line. Punter Ben Graham averaged 43.4 yards per punt and the team’s net average was 36.6 yards. In the return game, they had one of the NFL’s best in RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, who had a pair of kickoff returns for TDs and averaged 27.2 yards on 57 returns. Cardinals coverage units did not give up a touchdown and did a good job against kick returns, but not so on punts, where opponents averaged 13.1 yards a return.

DECISION MAKER

That would be GM Rod Graves and head coach Ken Whisenhunt. Knowing how the Bidwill family generally handles all things related to the team, there’s always the chance they could put their two cents worth in and promote or kill a possible choice.

Graves is entering his fifth season as GM and he’s been with the team through 1997. By contract, he’s in charge of the personnel and has final say. Whisenhunt will be in his fifth season as head coach of the Cardinals. Right now he’s been head coach for 70 games and in the long history of the Cardinals, whether Chicago, St. Louis or Arizona, that’s a pretty long tenure.

Who has the draft room juice? That belongs to Graves, with team president Michael Bidwill hovering in the background.

TEAM NEEDS

1. Outside linebacker. Since Whisenhunt took over four years ago, the Cardinals have run out of a 3-4 base defense. They’ve done that without really developing any outside linebackers. Early on they had draft choices Calvin Pace and Karlos Dansby, but both left the team in free agency. Last year, the starting OLBs were Joey Porter and Clark Haggans. Both of those guys will be 34 before training camp. Last year, Porter-Haggans had 5 sacks each, but Arizona needs more from the guys on the edge not only in rushing the passer, but in improving that NFL worst defense against the run.

2. Quarterback. Organizational dysfunction is the only way to explain the fall of this position to the bottom of the Cardinals roster. Warner’s retirement and then the release of Leinart before the 2010 season left them with journeyman Anderson and not much else. Rookies John Skelton and Max Hall each started games as rookies and did not display anything that said they are the QB of the future. They probably won’t pull the trigger on a passer in the first round, but second, third and fourth are real possibilities.

3. Tight end. Name that most productive tight end with the Cardinals over the last five seasons? That would have been Leonard Pope, who caught 23 passes for 238 yards and 5 TDs during the 2007 season. Pope is one of six TEs that Arizona has drafted since 2000, and he was the highest choice coming in the third round. The rest were fifth and seventh-round choices. For the sake of whoever the QB will be, the Cardinals need to get him a security blanket at TE.

FIVE-YEAR DRAFT HISTORY

Arizona’s drafting record is a strange one over the last five years. They’ve failed on some of their higher picks, but then hit on some of their lower round choices, including a couple of very good fifth rounders in RB Hightower and WR Breaston. But first rounders like OT Levi Brown (fifth overall in ’07) and RB Beanie Wells (31st in ’09) have not made big impressions in their early seasons. There were poor choices early like LB Cody Brown (2nd) and LB Buster Davis (3rd) have caused problems on defense. Davis was cut at the end of training camp in his first season, and Brown was released before his second year.

2006: The second and fourth-round picks still on the roster, and only G Deuce Lutui (2nd) is in the starting lineup.

2007: Four of their five choices were on the roster at the end of last year with LT Levi Brown (1st), WR Steve Breaston (5th) and TE Ben Patrick (7th) in the starting lineup.

2008d: Three starters out of t his class led by CB Rodgers-Cromartie (1st), DE Calais Campbell and RB Hightower (5th).

2009: Four bodies left from this group, including Stephens-Howling, who maybe the league’s best kick returner. CB Greg Toler (4th) is one of the starters at CB.

2010: Five players still there with LB Daryl Washington (2nd) working his way into the starting lineup.

PREDICTION

With the fifth choice, I think the Cardinals are going to have one of those tough best available athlete-need decisions to make. If Cam Newton, Marcell Dareus, Von Miller and A.J. Green have gone with the first four picks, then the obvious best athlete choice is CB Patrick Peterson. If they are going to go for need, then it would be North Carolina OLB/DE Robert Quinn or possibly OLB/DE Da’Quan Bowers out of Clemson. There’s always the chance to decide that they must have QB Blaine Gabbert. I think they’ll go with Peterson.

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