TEMPE, Ariz. — Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt learned a lot about his team in the 2011 season. It’s the lingering questions that will dominate the offseason.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the top five entries in each of those categories, including a look at the key offseason personnel decisions the team must make. WHAT WE LEARNED
1. The Cardinals are a resilient bunch: That point was proven by their ability to rebound after a 1-6 start with a 7-2 finish. Arizona tied with eight other teams for the second-highest win total (eight) by a team that also endured a six-game losing streak. To a man, the Cards credited the team’s strong leadership as the main reason for that resolve. 2. The Cards have some young, exciting players: Cornerback/punt returner Patrick Peterson, outside linebacker Sam Acho, inside linebacker Daryl Washington, defensive end Calais Campbell, defensive lineman David Carter and even running back Ryan Williams (when he returns to health) all appear to be impact players. If they continue to improve at their current rate, the future looks promising. 3. The Cards have a workhorse running back: Beanie Wells proved his toughness by battling through a season-long knee injury (one that he said will likely require offseason surgery) to post the franchise’s first 1,000-yard season (1,047) since Edgerrin James in 2007. He ran for a franchise-record 228 yards against the Rams in November. Imagine what he could do if he could just stay healthy for a full season. 4. The defense won’t rest: The Cardinals finally have a capable defensive coordinator in Ray Horton and a defense that should be entertaining in 2012 after a full offseason to hone the obvious progress it made over the second half of the season. Entering the season finale, Arizona’s defense ranked 12th in yards per game (322.3), seventh in passing yards per game (195.3), 22nd in rushing yards per game (127), third in opponents’ completion percentage (28.3), third in touchdowns allowed (10) and first in opponents’ red-zone scoring percentage (32) over the season’s second half. 5. Kevin Spencer deserves more credit: The Cards special-teams coach gets results every season. As one scribe pointed out, Spencer is at the mercy of his ever-changing personnel yet continually turns water into wine. Last year, it was kicker Jay Feely hitting every field goal in sight and LaRod Stephens-Howling energizing the team with kickoff returns; this year it was Patrick Peterson tying an NFL record with four punt returns for TDs and the Cards blocking an astounding five field goals (three by Calais Campbell, two by Peterson). Oh yeah, from a media standpoint, he’s also the most quotable, enjoyable assistant coach ever. WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
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1. Do the Cardinals have an elite quarterback? Acquired just before training camp started, Kevin Kolb struggled early as he adapted to a new system and new terminology without the benefit of an offseason. A turf toe/foot injury and a subsequent concussion sidelined him for almost eight full games, further hampering progress he appeared to be making in a win over the Cowboys. Kolb admitted Monday that 2012 feels like a defining season for him given his hefty contract and the progress backup John Skelton is making. Once his concussion symptoms subside (he said he’ll like have another neurological exam in about a month), expect Kolb to be a fixture at the team’s practice facility this offseason. He has the work ethic, the intelligence and the right attitude to play the position, but he still must prove he has the ability. 2. Does the offensive line have an identity? It looked like the Cards were emerging as a run-oriented offense early in the season when Wells had success and the big bodies up front were moving mountains. But Arizona finished 24th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (101.6). Part of that was likely due to ineffective quarterback play, but now the Cards face the possibility of more turnover on the unit, with both starting tackles (Levi Brown and Brandon Keith) possibly moving on. 3. Do the Cards have a No. 2 receiver? Andre Roberts made strides this season, but he finished third among the team’s receivers in receptions (51), yards (586) and touchdowns (2) behind Larry Fitzgerald and Early Doucet. The Cards like Roberts’ downfield blocking and his attitude, but they could use a jump in production to take some of the pressure and defensive attention off Fitz. Maybe some of that will come with improved quarterback play. 4. Will any big-contract players be released?
Kolb: The Cards invested too much in Kolb – up to $63 million along with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick — to release him after half a season’s worth of evaluation. Without an offseason, 2011 was an unfair litmus test for Kolb, and the Cards would just have to find another starter to replace him anyway since John Skelton isn’t ready yet. He’ll be back.
Todd Heap: The local legend was hampered by injuries much of the season. He wants to come back, saying Monday that he has “unfinished business,” but the Cards have an emerging pass-catching tight end in Rob Housler and two capable blockers in Jim Dray and Jeff King, who also showed an ability to catch. That could hurt Heap’s chances of staying with the hometown team through the second year of his two-year, $5.5 million contract.
Stewart Bradley: Bradley’s five-year, $30 million free-agent deal is eye-popping considering that he never replaced inside linebacker Paris Lenon in the starting lineup. But the Cards still view him as a building block for the future since Lenon is 34. If the Cards went to training camp with Daryl Washington, Lenon, Bradley, Reggie Walker and Quan Sturdivant, they likely wouldn’t need to address this position. It all depends on the staff’s evaluation of Bradley moving forward at that price.
Levi Brown: His salary-cap number rises to $16.9 million next season. The Cards can’t and won’t pay that for their starting left tackle even though coach Ken Whisenhunt said Brown played well over the second half of the season. There has been talk of moving him to the right side if Brandon Keith doesn’t return, but left tackles are tough to find. This will come down to how much of a pay cut Brown is willing to take — and what other offers he fields from a league short on experienced left tackles.
Adrian Wilson: He’s 33 and his salary increases from $3.5 million to $6.5 million next season. But Wilson is a warrior who battled through a torn biceps tendon in training camp to play every game this season. Like many of the Cards defensive players, he struggled early in Horton’s new scheme, but he improved as the season progressed and took his game up a notch in pass coverage. He should finish out his contract, which runs through 2013. 5. What will the Cards do with their free agents? The Cards have 16 of them: defensive end Calais Campbell, linebacker Clark Haggans, cornerback Richard Marshall, receiver Early Doucet, right tackle Brandon Keith, kicker Jay Feely, outside linebacker Joey Porter, defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday, guard Deuce Lutui, guard Floyd Womack, long snapper Mike Leach, running back Chester Taylor, punter Dave Zastudil, safety Hamza Abdullah, offensive tackle D’Anthony Batiste and safety Sean Considine. They also have some key restricted free agents, such as cornerbacks Greg Toler and A.J. Jefferson as well as Stephens-Howling.
Here’s a quick look at the bigger-name unrestricted free agents.
Campbell: He is priority No. 1. Some question why the Cards let his contract get this far, but Campbell was inconsistent last season, so the Cards wanted to be sure before locking him up at a big number. Campbell may have driven that price too high when he posted 72 tackles, eight sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, an interception and three blocked field goals this season. If the sides can’t reach agreement on a long-term deal, expect the Cards to use the franchise tag on Campbell, which would guarantee him $10.6 million next season
Marshall: Defensive coordinator Ray Horton called Marshall his MVP this season due to his versatility. He shifted almost seamlessly from cornerback to safety when free safety Kerry Rhodes was lost for a long stretch with a broken foot. If the Cards can afford Marshall’s contract needs, cornerback would be a position of strength with Patrick Peterson emerging, Greg Toler returning and Michael Adams providing gutty situational play.
Haggans: Haggans turns 35 in a week, yet he played better than expected this season. He would be a savvy and likeable tutor to keep around for young outside backers Acho and Schofield.
Keith: Injuries last season (hamstring, knee) and this season (knee, concussion) have made it difficult to gauge Keith’s potential and progress. He landed on IR late in the season and was being outplayed by Jeremy Bridges before that. Keith’s fate will likely be determined by what the outside market offers.
Doucet: He had some key drops, but Doucet also made some big plays, finishing second among the team’s receivers in receptions (54), yards (689) and TDs (2). He shouldn’t cost too much to bring back. Given the Cards’ losses at this position the past couple seasons (Anquan Boldin, Steve Breaston), they can’t afford to let another one slip away.
Feely: When asked why he has such a good relationship with Whisenhunt and Spencer, Feely joked that it’s because he’s closer in age (35) to his coaches than he is to the players. Aside from a couple early-season hiccups, Feely has been rock steady the past two seasons, connecting on 40 of 48 field-goal attempts. The Cards would like him back.
Porter: Chronic knee problems and 13 years of wear and tear have taken their toll on a once-fierce pass rusher. And Porter’s replacement, Sam Acho, has already won the job. Porter won’t be back and could retire after a remarkable career and an approach that always started with personal accountability.
Holliday: Fourteen years haven’t robbed Holliday of his effectiveness. That was apparent when he filled in well for an injured Campbell in the season finale. Holliday is a terrific locker-room presence, a good guy who commands respect and pays the price. He’d give the Cards enviable depth along the line for another season if the price is right.
Lutui: Deuce cost himself a lot of money before the season by reporting to Bengals camp overweight (381 pounds) after signing a two-year, $8.75 million deal. He says he’s learned his lesson, but the offseason is rife with temptations. If Lutui blows this next opportunity, he may not get another. As he said he would last year, he will take the best deal offered.