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Camp Confidential: Arizona Cardinals

8/8/2011

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Kevin Kolb has accomplished something not even Kurt Warner always managed during his five-year run with the Arizona Cardinals.

He has brought clarity to the quarterback position.

What a relief for Arizona.

This training camp marks only the second in five under coach Ken Whisenhunt with a clearly defined, secure starter behind center.

Matt Leinart was the man in 2007 until an injury sidelined him. Whisenhunt propped up Leinart heading into camp the following year, but Kurt Warner won the job and kept it through 2009. Warner's retirement thrust Leinart back into the starting role again last offseason. The team cut him following a nondescript 2010 camp.

Tension and uncertainty have surrounded the position most years. That changed when the Cardinals traded for Kolb and signed him to a five-year, $63 million contract. Just as Kolb was desperate for a starting job while parked behind Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick in Philadelphia, the Cardinals have been starved for quarterback stability.

"When you look in his eyes, you can tell he really wants it," receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "We're going to follow his lead."

There is some blind faith involved. Kolb has only seven regular-season starts to his credit. He played well in some, not as well in others.

Can he get it done? It's too early to say. It did become clear right away upon visiting camp that Kolb is comfortable with himself and adept at relating to teammates. That separates him from Leinart and 2010 starter Derek Anderson.

It was telling, I thought, when newly signed guard Daryn Colledge cracked wise on Kolb's fat salary.

"I'll blame one of my cadence [misunderstandings] on him," Colledge joked. "I'll do that right away since he makes more money than me."

There's an obvious comfort level with Kolb already, even if Fitzgerald resisted his new quarterback's attempts to enjoin him to chew tobacco. Kolb clearly has the requisite moxie. Then again, so did Max Hall. A quarterback must play well for any of it to matter.

"He has that 'it' factor, the confidence quarterbacks that need to be successful in this league," said new Cardinals linebacker Stewart Bradley, who was also Kolb's teammate with the Eagles. "He can make all the throws, he has all the intangibles."

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Where's the pass-rusher? The Cardinals went into the 2011 draft thinking pass-rusher Von Miller would be their guy with the fifth overall choice. They badly needed pass-rush help after relying too heavily upon aging outside linebackers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans. Miller seemingly would have been the perfect fit. Plans changed when Denver made Miller the second overall choice. While Arizona was perfectly happy taking LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson at No. 5, not getting Miller meant the team would have to wait another year before targeting an elite pass-rush prospect. It's an area the team will have to address next offseason even if O'Brien Schofield and rookie Sam Acho exceed expectations. In the meantime, new defensive coordinator Ray Horton appears destined to live out what his recent predecessors experienced. It's tough fielding a 3-4 defense without sufficient talent on the outside. Then again, if Miller had been there for Arizona at No. 5, the team wouldn't have gotten Peterson. In that case, the Cardinals could not have justified trading Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the Philadelphia in the Kolb deal. The Eagles then might have asked for and received greater compensation through 2012 draft choices.

2. Who is the No. 2 receiver? Only Larry Fitzgerald remains from the 2008 Arizona receiving corps featuring three 1,000-yard wideouts, but the Cardinals do not sound particularly concerned. They considered adding Braylon Edwards in free agency, but they weren't interested enough to close the deal, particularly for a player with off-field issues. Andre Roberts and Early Doucet are the favorites to fill the No. 2 void created when Steve Breaston signed with Kansas City. The team is also expecting free-agent newcomer Todd Heap to provide a receiving option at tight end that has not existed previously under Whisenhunt in Arizona. Still, the Cardinals lack proven depth at wideout behind Fitzgerald. Durability is a concern for Doucet. Roberts showed promise as a rookie last season, but is he ready to contribute for a full season?

3. Does Kolb fit the scheme? The West Coast system Kolb learned during his time in Philadelphia differs from the one Whisenhunt installed in Arizona. I questioned heading into free agency whether Arizona would be the best landing spot for Kolb. In general, proponents of traditional West Coast systems seek to run the same plays from different formations with more precision than the defense can muster. Out-executing opponents trumps out-scheming them. A quarterback can become as good as the system allows him to be. The Cardinals' offense relies upon matching route concepts to specific coverages. Kolb: "I like the way they put it on the quarterback to get into those concepts. As long as your quarterback can think quick on his feet, a lot of times you are going to be in the right play in the right position. It just clicks with me. ... Look at what Kurt did. He understood it. He did it at the top level and look how successful they were. There is never a ceiling of how good you can get. It’s just however much you can handle as a quarterback. That is what is exciting for me."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Cornerback depth appears OK. Trading away Rodgers-Cromartie and losing Michael Adams to knee surgery would have sent the team into a panic last summer. That hasn't been the case so far. Former receiver A.J. Jefferson has caught the Cardinals' attention. He's even running with the starters pending Peterson's ascension. Free-agent addition Richard Marshall and Greg Toler combined for 29 starts last season. Peterson gives Arizona a special athlete and a player mature beyond his years. The biggest question is whether Arizona can generate a pass-rush sufficient enough to put the cornerbacks in favorable situations. Adams is expected back in a few weeks.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Adrian Wilson's injury. The Cardinals plan to announce Monday whether Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson will require surgery following a Saturday injury to his elbow/biceps area. Wilson will miss time even if surgery isn't necessary. That's a setback for Wilson personally after an injured abductor slowed him last season. It's a setback for the defense because Horton, the new defensive coordinator, needs Wilson to execute some of the blitz packages planned for 2011. Third-year pro Rashad Johnson would likely start if Wilson were unavailable.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Beanie Wells still projects as the starting running back heading into the season even though rookie second-round choice Ryan Williams has impressed. Every negative play from Wells invites skepticism regarding his ability to meet expectations as a 2009 first-round draft choice. That was the case when Wells fumbled during the first full-contact goal-line session of camp. Wells bounced back with energized runs the following day, though, and he knows the offense better than Williams at this point.

  • Williams looks like the better pure runner. Where Wells is more of a downhill runner with straight-line tendencies, Williams has shown he can cut effortlessly, even at high speed. One of Williams' coaches from Virginia Tech told the Cardinals he had never coached a more talented player.

  • Nose tackle Dan Williams was another lockout victim. He reported to camp heavy and out of shape. Williams came on strong as a rookie late last season. Like a lot of big guys, however, he would have been much better off spending his offseason operating within a structured conditioning program.

  • The lockout could prevent third-round choice Rob Housler from contributing much as a rookie. Housler needed a full offseason to work on his blocking and smooth his adjustment from Florida Atlantic. The Cardinals take pride in developing players from smaller programs, but there simply wasn't enough time to get Housler up to speed this offseason. Heap's addition removes pressure in the short term.

  • Fifth-round choice Anthony Sherman came advertised as the best fullback in the 2011 draft. It's tough to argue with that assessment after watching Sherman early in camp. He was popping people left and right. Sherman also projects as an outstanding special-teams player, another plus. Fewer teams are keeping fullbacks on the 53-man rosters, but the Cardinals will happily find a spot for Sherman. I could see them keeping four tight ends, with free-agent addition Jeff King providing flexibility through his ability to shift into the backfield as a lead blocker. Under that scenario, Arizona would go with Heap, King, Housler and Stephen Spach as its tight ends. Wells, Williams, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Sherman would be the backs.

  • It's tough to envision Hall returning as part of the 53-man roster. John Skelton is clearly ahead of Hall as the No. 2 option behind Kolb. Richard Bartel looks like a better prospect, too. Hall's presence in the lineup for three starts last season sent defenses into feeding frenzies. They couldn't wait to come after him. Fewer teams are likely to keep three quarterbacks on their 53-man rosters, anyway, after the NFL modified rules for game-day rosters.

  • Right tackle Brandon Keith is coming off knee surgery and is still shaking off the rust. The Cardinals need solid play from that position in the regular-season opener against Carolina. Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson gave right tackles problems last season. He had three of his 11.5 sacks against NFC West teams, including one against Arizona when Keith was on injured reserve. Also last season, Johnson knocked out San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith with a shoulder injury.

  • It's only a matter of time before Bradley supplants Paris Lenon at inside linebacker. Bradley and returning starter Daryl Washington will be asked to blitz from the inside and also to cover. The Cardinals need to find creative ways to use them as pass-rushers given the situation at outside linebacker. The scheme Bradley played in Philadelphia took his eyes off the quarterback a fair amount of the time. Bradley, a defensive end as a freshman in college, wants more chances to rush the passer. He has the size (6-foot-4, 258 pounds) to .

  • Keep an eye on rookie receiver DeMarco Sampson, a seventh-round choice from San Diego State. Sampson keeps making impressive catches in practice.

  • The Cardinals' offense figures to change in complexion following so many additions at running back and tight end. The reality, though, is that Kolb likes operating from four-receiver personnel groupings. We could still wind up seeing the Cardinals spreading the field as they did before suffering personnel losses at receiver.

  • Defenses tend to outpace offenses early in camp. That hasn't been the case for Arizona. Fitzgerald offered one possible explanation: the team has been running the same offense since 2007, but the defense is new.