Cardinals camp preview: Leinart or Warner?
Editor's note: These camp previews are up to date as of the start of preseason games. For the latest changes since then, check our updated rankings, projections and profiles.
Year one of the Ken Whisenhunt era worked out better than any of those under Dave McGinnis or Dennis Green, but there's still plenty of work to be done in the desert. Whisenhunt returns a similar roster to the 2007 model that finished at .500, and just like last year, the intrigue with the Cardinals centers around what the coaching staff can squeeze out of its limited (especially defensively) roster.
Fortunately, despite his conservative approach, Whisenhunt adapted nicely to the pass-happy offense he inherited, bumping it up 12 spots in the rankings in terms of total points and six spots in total yards from 2006 to 2007. Some of the credit should go to his chief offensive aides, Todd Haley (coordinator) and Russ Grimm (offensive line coach). Haley, in fact, will take over the play-calling responsibilities this season.
Interestingly, having Warner win the role outright would probably be best from a fantasy standpoint, even if the team prefers the alternative. He passed for at least two touchdowns in each of the team's final eight games, the team winning five of them and averaging 368.9 total yards on offense during that span. Problem is, Leinart probably is the better fit as a long-term option, not to mention that Whisenhunt seems to feel he's a stronger candidate for the "game-manager" style he prefers from a quarterback.
The Cardinals return in 2008 with much of the same team they had in '07. In this case, that's not a bad thing.
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Besides impacting his own fantasy value, the winner of the quarterback battle will have a profound impact on the team's receivers, including Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and, to an extent, whoever emerges as the No. 3 option. With Bryant Johnson gone, early indications are that Steve Breaston is the leading candidate after a fine minicamp. Third-round draft choice Early Doucet will surely push him for the spot, though, with Jerheme Urban a fallback option should neither be up to the task.
Matt Leinart says he's still working to keep his starting role even after being named starter.
Fitting in: Besides Doucet and Hightower, the Cardinals made few changes to their roster this spring, the most notable addition being their first-round pick, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He'll provide valuable help for a team stronger in the secondary than you'd think, with cornerback-turned-free safety Antrel Rolle and strong safety Adrian Wilson. The Cardinals for years have routinely been pushed around on defense, ranking 17th in 2007, but could be on the rise. Not that we're talking a great fantasy defense, not by a long shot, but a useful matchup or two could pop up.
On the line: The personnel on the Cardinals' offensive line remains largely unchanged, and that's actually a good thing (for once). For years a weak spot on the team, the O-line actually earned the label "respectable" under Grimm, and most who follow the team feel further improvement should be expected in 2008. Not that we're talking an elite unit -- it has gone from a bottom-five to more of a "middling" ranking -- but consider that Edgerrin James picked up his yards-per-carry total from a career-worst 3.4 in 2006 to 3.8 last season, while the team cut its number of sacks from 35 to 24. Continued growth could prove critical to a team with a 30-year-old, heavily worked starting running back and a quarterback (Leinart) who needs all the help he can get with the maturing process.
There's little concern for what Warner winning the starting quarterback role might mean for the team's receivers. It's what might happen if Leinart begins the year under center that has us troubled. In addition to showing the coaching staff he's capable of handling the chores of being a starting NFL quarterback, he's going to need some strong preseason games to get the fantasy community convinced. The bottom line is that Leinart to has sagged both Fitzgerald's and Boldin's numbers, and in Fitzgerald's case, it has been significant. Consider that in 13 games working with Leinart, Fitzgerald has averaged 5.9 receptions, 80.0 receiving yards and 0.38 scores; in 15 with Warner, those numbers were 6.2, 87.7 and 0.73. Not that Leinart starting can't mean success for both Boldin and Fitzgerald, but there's a greater probability of the Cardinals going more run-based and conservative if that happens.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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