Cardinals rebuilding defense

Updated: August 1, 2010, 10:52 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson are getting the most public attention in training camp. They are quarterbacks, after all, on a team that has lost Kurt Warner.

A bigger question mark for the Arizona Cardinals, though, is the defense, where departures and arrivals have led to a personnel shakeup in a unit that surrendered 90 points in two playoff games last season.

Bill Davis, entering his second season as defensive coordinator, says the challenge is blending those players into a cohesive unit that's an improvement from a year ago.

"We have to get this group playing together as quick as we can, as efficiently and mistake-free as we can," he said. "So there's a communication and over-communicating to make sure that we've got 11 guys playing the same defense. We've got a lot of strong, veteran personalities. A big emphasis has been tackling every day so we can get that better than it was in the playoffs."

Some of the big names on the defense, notably Pro Bowlers Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Darnell Dockett, made their presence felt on Sunday when the players donned pads for a practice forced indoors by wet weather.

Rodgers-Cromartie, still nursing a surgically repaired knee, made several spectacular plays against Larry Fitzgerald and others. Dockett knocked Leinart on his backside and bonked running back Tim Hightower in the head on another.

They, along with safety Adrian Wilson, are the defensive leaders. The problems loom elsewhere for a team that could have as many as five new starters.

Improvements were made during the regular season last year, Davis said, but all that anyone will remember were those awful final performances.

"At the end of the day, we made strides in the season," he said, "but when it mattered most, we didn't. That's on me and us and we'll get it fixed."

The first day of free agency was a tough one, when inside linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Antrel Rolle signed with other teams. Defensive end Bertrand Berry retired and outside linebacker Chike Okeafor was not re-signed.

Arizona made moves to fill the holes. Outside linebacker Joey Porter signed as a free agent and safety Kerry Rhodes came in a trade with the New York Jets. Porter and his former Pittsburgh Steelers teammate Clark Haggans man the outside linebacker spots.

The big battles in training camp are at cornerback and inside linebacker. Last year's starting corner Bryant McFadden was traded to Pittsburgh. The fight for his job mainly is between free agent signee Trumaine McBride, who played two full seasons with Chicago but was released after one game a year ago, and second-year pro Greg Toler.

McBride, a nine-game starter as a rookie, stands just 5-foot-9 but brings experience that Toler lacks. Toler, a fourth-round pick out of little St. Paul's of Virginia, has the raw talent but needs to be more consistent.

At inside linebacker, the situation is even more unsettled. Dansby was the team's big-play defender and the one who called the plays. Fellow starter Gerald Hayes is recovering from back surgery with no timetable for his return.

"It is an absolute dogfight inside," Davis said. "It is up in the air, up for grabs. These guys, by their play and the way they handle themselves through the preseason, they'll determine who the best two are and the best backups are. It is 100 percent wide open."

The candidates include free agent signee Paris Lenon, a starter the last five seasons with Green Bay, Detroit and St. Louis. Then there's Monty Beisel, rarely a starter in his 10 NFL seasons and in his second stint with the Cardinals.

The Cardinals want to move rookie Daryl Washington, a second-round pick who was a standout at TCU, to eventually fill one of the inside linebacker spots. Ali Highsmith is back with the team after being released Dec. 22 and re-signed to the practice squad. Highsmith made two starts in place of the injured Hayes a year ago. Also back is Reggie Walker, the only undrafted rookie free agent to make the team a year ago.

The defensive line, for now, is the same as a year ago, with Dockett, who fell one vote shy of first-team All Pro, at tackle and 6-foot-8 Calais Campbell at end. Bryant Robinson returns at nose tackle but could be pushed once Arizona signs first-round pick Dan Williams.

By the end of Monday, the Cardinals will finalize their deal with Williams, NFL sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. The two sides are close enough to a deal that both expect it to get done by Monday.

Porter knows how bad his new team's defense was.

"That's the beautiful thing about training camp," he said. "Everybody starts out 0-0. Last year was last year. We're not the same team."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.