Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Training camp at Northern Arizona University has a decidedly different feel now that the Cardinals are defending NFC champions.
What appeared to be 2,000 or more fans lined the fences and covered the hills along the two inhabitable sides of the lower practice fields. Perhaps 100 or 200 showed up for the first day of camp when Ken Whisenhunt took over as head coach before the 2007 season.
Winning changes everything.A few quick observations from the morning practice before I run over to the lunch area for Whisenhunt's and Kurt Warner's media sessions:
- Larry Fitzgerald extending one hand to snatch a pass from Brian St. Pierre along the sideline. He does it regularly, but it's still fun to watch, particularly when lesser-known receivers such as Edward Gant dropped similar passes when using two hands.
- Cornerbacks Bryant McFadden and sometimes Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie trying to play the ball physically, only to have Fitzgerald catch it anyway.
- Stephen Spach participating without obvious limitations after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL. The tight end situation is so wide open that Dominique Byrd could seriously challenge for a roster spot. I watched Spach engage a big defensive lineman during in-line blocking, without buckling. That would seem to count as a positive for him.
- Steve Breaston was the most sure-handed punt returner out there. Michael Ray Garvin muffed two. Gant muffed one. Breaston turned and ran about 10 yards before snatching one punt over his shoulder, Willie Mays-style.
- The Cardinals aren't trying to beat up one another out there. They practice in a controlled manner. They will hold relatively few grueling two-a-day sessions. This is a veteran team. No need to get anyone hurt.
- Byrd made a nice grab while back-pedaling along the right sideline, but he was unable to keep his balance to gain additional yardage.
- Breaston ran right through the offensive line drills while running a deep pass pattern. Someone could have gotten hurt. No one did.
- Nose tackle Alan Branch does appear to be in better shape. Let's see how he holds up through a full camp.
- As noted, the receivers played the ball aggressively. Jerheme Urban beat Ralph Brown to a contested ball. The receivers are the Cardinals' strength and you see it repeatedly during practice.
- Fulback Dan Kreider left the field briefly after appearing shaken up. I'll ask Whisenhunt about what happened. Didn't appear serious.
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