For the third consecutive offseason, the top priority on either side of the ball will be finding a way to improve the production at quarterback.
That’s unlikely to include a personnel change, although the club is expected to express interest if Peyton Manning hit the open market. Most speculation has the Cardinals somewhere on the list of teams that could attract Manning, but speculation is all it is at this point.
Looked at objectively, the Cardinals seem to have a lot going for them if they chose to pursue Manning.
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Coach Ken Whisenhunt has demonstrated that he’s willing to commit to the passing game and mold an offense around an older quarterback who likes to play a certain way. The team has one of the NFL’s better receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and two talented young running backs in Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams. The offensive line needs to be addressed, but Manning can make an average line look good.
Several hurdles have to be cleared before the pursuit of Manning becomes a reality. It’s far more likely that the club will have the same trio at quarterback as it did in 2011: Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and Rich Bartel.
Whisenhunt hasn’t addressed who is the starter. Most likely it will be Kolb, with Skelton the challenger.
Kolb is due a roster bonus of $7 million on March 13, about a week after the Colts’ deadline to pay Manning a $28 million roster bonus. That gives the Cardinals limited time to make a decision, although it’s unlikely Manning will be sound enough physically at that point to throw the ball.
The Cardinals also have other issues, as they need to upgrading their offensive line and add talent at receiver.
Left tackle Levi Brown is likely to be released since his cap number escalates from around $9 million to $17 million. There’s a dearth of talent in free agency at that position, so it’s possible the club could look at re-signing Brown, a five-year veteran. Brown would have to play for considerably less money, though, and he could be attractive to many teams.
Right tackle is also a concern, as Brandon Keith struggled through last season. He played through a knee injury all year, but he also needs considerable improvement in technique.
It’s possible the club could also look at upgrading the right guard position. Rex Hadnot started there last year and will be back but could be challenged by a draft pick. Hadnot is a tough veteran but isn’t that mobile. The Cardinals like to pull their guards, and that’s not Hadnot’s strength.
There is little young offensive line talent on the roster. That’s no surprise since the team hasn’t drafted one in the last two years.
The coaches seem less concerned than anyone else about the receiver position behind Fitzgerald. Andre Roberts went through a month-long stretch during the season in which he produced little, but the coaches think that had more to do with poor quarterback play than with Roberts not being able to handle the job.
Early Doucet, the No. 3 receiver, is an unrestricted free agent who could draw some attention in free agency. The club wants him back, but at the right price.
None of the other youngsters on the roster — DeMarco Sampson, Stephen Williams and Jaymar Johnson — have shown that they’re ready to make an impact. NOTES, QUOTES
— Ken Whisenhunt finalized his staff by shifting John McNulty from receivers coach to quarterbacks coach and hiring Frank Reich to coach receivers. McNulty replaces Chris Miller, who was fired shortly after the season.
Reich’s hiring likely will fuel speculation about the team’s interest in Peyton Manning since he spent the past four seasons as an assistant with the Colts. He was a quarterbacks coach for two years before moving to receivers coach. But Whisenhunt declined to answer questions regarding Manning.
“I hired Frank because he’s a good coach,” Whisenhunt said.
Reich said there are no dots to connect in the situation.
— McNulty wasn’t happy when the team denied the Buccaneers permission to interview him about their offensive coordinator job. Team president Michael Bidwill blocked the move but had Whisenhunt’s endorsement.
McNulty has come to terms with the decision and said he is looking forward to his new duties. If he can fix the Cardinals quarterback position, he should command attention for more coordinator jobs in the future.
“To me, you could either continue to be frustrated and complain,” he said, “or if you think you can help, you can do something about it. So hopefully, collectively, we can put together a program to get these guys playing better.
“If that happens, then I think we’ll really be on the way to a lot of success here.”
— Hiring Reich as a receivers coach seems strange since he played quarterback in the NFL, but Reich said he’s been working with receivers his entire football career.
“I’ve always felt that close bond with those guys, like there’s an instant chemistry,” he said.
— Whisenhunt said his discussions with former offensive coordinator Todd Haley about returning to the team were serious, but he also said he wasn’t going to name Haley offensive coordinator again, as he’s satisfied with the job Mike Miller has done.
Haley would have had to accept a position as receivers or quarterbacks coach, and it would have been difficult for Haley to return as a position coach after serving as a coordinator and head coach.
He was hired as the Steelers offensive coordinator this week. STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
— The coaching staff and pro scouts are in the process of evaluating free agents now, but re-signing a couple of their own players should be the Cards’ priority.
General manager Rod Graves continues to negotiate with the agent for defensive end Calais Campbell. If Campbell isn’t signed to a multiyear deal, the team will probably use the franchise tag to restrict his options.
Cornerback Richard Marshall is also a priority. He became a starter midway through the year and also played safety when Kerry Rhodes was injured. MEDICAL WATCH
— RB Ryan Williams is progressing normally after missing all of last season with a torn patellar tendon. Williams probably won’t participate in practices this spring but plans on being 100 percent by training camp.
— CB Greg Toler is running and expects to be fully recovered from a torn ACL by this summer. Toler could get some work in practice this spring and summer.
— RB Beanie Wells underwent arthroscopic knee surgery shortly after the season ended. It was a fairly minor procedure, and Wells should be able to participate fully in practices this spring.