Commentary

Arizona rebuilding project on track

Kolb and offense looking strong so far, but defense may need some shoring up

Originally Published: August 16, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Construction is everywhere at Northern Arizona University.

The Skydome is undergoing a significant upgrade. Construction crews are digging deep holes outside the school's cafeteria for new buildings. Meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals, who make their summer home at NAU, are undergoing a major roster reconstruction.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt is working with 51 new players on his 90-man roster. That includes 10 significant acquisitions, among them former Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb and linebacker Stewart Bradley. After a disastrous 5-11 season, the Cards needed to take a wrecking ball to their lineup.

This team is clearly on the rebound. Spirits are good. The talent level is better. After the team failed to have a master plan to replace Kurt Warner, who retired after a 2009 playoff season, inspectors should give an early thumbs-up to the Cardinals' master plan.

Here are five observations from Cardinals camp:

1. Kolb solid: The trade for Kolb should improve the Cardinals by at least three games. This is a better-looking Kolb than what we saw in Philadelphia for seven starts. Tight end Todd Heap, who watched Joe Flacco develop into an elite quarterback during Flacco's first three years in Baltimore, sees similar projections for Kolb. He's throwing the ball better than he did in Philadelphia. During the 136-day lockout, Kolb spent time with a trainer strengthening muscles in his stomach and back. As a result, he's firing passes like laser beams to receivers. Scouting reports from Philadelphia suggested he had a tendency to push the ball in his throws. Not now. "My arm has been feeling a lot stronger,'' Kolb said. "The ball is coming out quicker.'' Because Kolb has a gunslinger's mentality, his quick arm action should translate into big numbers for the Cardinals' offense. The second most important thing is that he understands Rule No. 1 in Arizona: Throw the ball to Larry Fitzgerald. That's not as easy as it sounds. Quarterbacks are trained not to throw to receivers when they are covered. Defenses may commit two defenders to stop Fitzgerald, but Kolb already understands to ignore the coverages and throw it to him anyway. "It took about a year or two for Kurt Warner to start trusting me like that," Fitzgerald said. Kolb picked that up in two days. He throws everything to Fitzgerald, and why not? He catches everything. Last year, Cardinals quarterbacks targeted Fitzgerald 173 times but connected on only 90 passes because most of the throws were off target. Normally, he gets 96 to 100 receptions out of 153 to 160 targeted throws. If Kolb and Fitzgerald stay healthy for 16 games, Fitzgerald should average at least seven catches a game out of 11 or 12 attempts.

2. Weapons are there: As much as most Cardinals fans want the team to get a big-name No. 2 receiver, the offense has enough receiving weapons to contend for the NFC West title. Andre Roberts is a decent outside receiver. Early Doucet is a nice target in the slot. The additions of tight ends Heap, Jeff King and Rob Housler should give Whisenhunt enough talent to scheme a potent passing offense. As he did in college, Kolb works his best out of spread formations. Whisenhunt has enough depth to use three- and four-receiver sets along with switching into some two-tight-end formations to confuse defenses. Heap is the first pass-catching tight end Whisenhunt has added since taking over as coach. He'll help Kolb in the middle of the field and in the red zone. In practices and in the first preseason game, Kolb has done an exceptional job accurately getting the ball to every pass-catcher. "Kevin is a little bit more of a gunslinger,'' Fitzgerald said. "He throws caution to the wind and lets [the receiver] try to make a play. Plus, he's really getting the ball into good places.'' Fitzgerald notes that of Kolb's seven starts in Philadelphia, he was Player of the Week twice.

[+] EnlargeBeanie Wells
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezBeanie Wells has looked much more forceful in practices and the Cardinals' preseason game.
3. Wells runs with authority: Beanie Wells is finally starting to look like a first-round running back. As a rookie in 2009, Wells' body wasn't ready for the NFL because he was coming off a knee injury. Last season, he didn't seem to have much confidence. Wells arrived in camp at 228 pounds but with very little body fat. He's running with more quickness and authority. Sure, there are times he needs to lower his pads and be more technically sound when he hits holes in short-yardage and goal-line situations, but his confidence has him making better decisions at the line of scrimmage and breaking more long runs. Of course, he'd better run hard and with confidence. Second-round pick Ryan Williams wows his teammates with one or two spectacular runs per practice. On Sunday, he broke an off-tackle run to his right, got 10 yards downfield and made two or three incredible cuts that left defenders whiffing. Wells may not be as good as DeAngelo Williams of the Carolina Panthers, but the one-two punch in the Cards' backfield reminds you a little of what the Panthers have in Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

4. Cornerback shuffle: The Cardinals wanted to draft Von Miller to be their pass-rushing linebacker, but the Denver Broncos grabbed him before their selection. So they settled on cornerback Patrick Peterson, a tall, physical cornerback with freakish speed. Peterson looks the part in practice, but he's running as the fourth cornerback in camp behind A.J. Jefferson, Greg Toler and recently signed Richard Marshall. Part of the reason for the slow promotion is Whisenhunt's style of making new acquisitions earn playing time, so Peterson should move up the depth chart before the opener. But drafting Peterson allowed the Cardinals to trade Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as part of the package to get Kolb, which ultimately will make them a better team. The Cards believe they are four deep at cornerback and have the ability to match up with teams in man coverage. For the moment, Peterson looks a little lost at times working with the second unit. Still, his big, fast frame will give the Cards the ability to match up against big receivers such as Sidney Rice, Michael Crabtree and Mike Williams.

5. Concerns on defense: The two major concerns on defense are nose tackle and outside linebacker. Nose tackle Dan Williams is trying to play himself into shape. As camp enters its third week, he's running first-team, but he's still overweight. What's behind him is a concern. Nick Eason is a grizzled veteran who comes from the Steelers, and promising sixth-round pick David Carter weighs less than 280 pounds. Whisenhunt hired defensive coordinator Ray Horton from the Steelers to install Dick LeBeau's blitzing schemes. Linebackers Clark Haggans and Joey Porter grew up learning LeBeau's system when they were Steelers, but they are both 34 years old. Each had only five sacks last season, and for this defense to work, the outside linebackers need twice that amount. "Our stud outside linebackers got a few gray hairs on them, but we got the potential to be a good fire-zone blitz team,'' Horton said. To compensate for the age at outside linebacker, Horton will have to take a few extra gambles with his blitzes.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer