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Thursday, August 14, 2008
Cardinals position battles revisited

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The position battles we previewed before training camp bear revisiting. We outlined two for each team, beginning with the Cardinals.

PopePatrick

Tight end: Leonard Pope vs. Ben Patrick

What we said then: Patrick opened the Cardinals' first practice as the starter, but the Cardinals haven't made a decision. Pope is the incumbent. He caught five touchdown passes last season before suffering a dislocated ankle during a late-season defeat at Seattle. Pope's 6-foot-8 frame works for him and against him. He's tall enough to present matchup problems in the passing game, but the height doesn't seem to help him as a blocker. Patrick has the potential to provide more versatility, but he hasn't played as much.

The Cardinals' offensive identity evolved last season as circumstances dictated a more wide-open attack. The tight ends became red-zone outlets more frequently. How the offense evolves this season could determine which tight end proves more useful. Pope was a third-round choice in 2006, a year before Ken Whisenhunt arrived as head coach. Patrick was the Cardinals' seventh-round choice in Whisenhunt's inaugural year. Veteran Jerame Tuman might be best suited as a blocking tight end in two-tight sets. In a best-case scenario, Patrick evolves as the starter, providing flexibility across personnel groups.

What we say now: Pope has generally played well, but he's still having problems with false-start penalties. His contributions during the exhibition opener included a 1-yard reception and a 5-yard penalty. Pope tends to jump early on running plays. Patrick came off the bench to catch one pass, a 16-yarder from Brian St. Pierre late in the third quarter.

Verdict: Too close to call.

Hood

Cornerback: Rod Hood vs. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

What we said then: Rodgers-Cromartie figures to emerge as the starter at some point this season, but when? Hood played more defensive snaps than any cornerback on the roster last season. He returned one interception for a touchdown during a three-point victory at St. Louis and another during a six-point victory over Cleveland. There's no reason to rush a rookie into the lineup ahead of schedule.

And yet the Cardinals didn't use a first-round choice on Rodgers-Cromartie to sit him on the bench. The former Tennessee State star appears unusually skinny by NFL standards at 6-foot-2 and 182 pounds. The tall, angular frame and long reach helps him get his hands on the football. That was evident during minicamps. Rodgers-Cromartie also had little trouble keeping pace with receivers on deep routes. The job becomes tougher when teams put on the pads and start hitting. Like most rookies, Rodgers-Cromartie might need time to adjust.

What we say now: Camp has progressed as expected. Rodgers-Cromartie continues to develop while serving as the third cornerback. Hood has fought through heel problems. Rodgers-Cromartie suffered an ankle injury in practice this week, but it wasn't serious. His big hit on Saints tight end Mark Campbell was a highlight of the opener.

Verdict: Rodgers-Cromartie still has a chance to emerge as the starter this season, but the Cardinals are not rushing him.

Also worth noting

Steve Breaston has the edge as the third receiver in part because a hamstring injury has sidelined third-round draft choice Early Doucet. ... Rookie running back Tim Hightower has taken hold of the backup job behind Edgerrin James. The team even released Marcel Shipp. ... Bertrand Berry started the exhibition opener, but his durability remains a concern. Expect Travis LaBoy to play extensively even if Berry starts. ... Quarterback Matt Leinart has a better shot at remaining on the field for all situations to start the season. Kurt Warner handled some aspects of the offense in 2007 and he continues to get selected first-team reps on offense, but the job is Leinart's to lose.