Football season is approaching like a hell-born, brimstone-laden train programmed for the unholy destruction of all of your free time, gambling money, nachos and beer rations. We're days away from Arizona Cardinals training camp up in the enchanted forests of Flagstaff, AZ, and it's time to get rocking and rolling with the gridiron gab.
As we talked about a few weeks ago, gentle friends, the Cards have dealt with an offseason heavy in free agent departures and subsequent free agent acquisitions. They also had another productive draft (yawn... sooo passé), finding value and impact in the first round and potential diamonds-in-the-rough in the later rounds.
The Whisenhunt-era Red Birds have done a swell job of raising fan expectations and cultivating something resembling front office competency and league-wide respect. Can they continue the streak during the upcoming season? Probably.
Yeah: Warner's wandered off into the land of retirement, lost - probably confused - and accompanied only by a modest supply of bland and soft food items, Gold Bond foot powder, and lots of suspenders. But that doesn't mean they've fallen out of contention in the NFC West.
The St. Louis Rams are still licking scraps from the cellar floor of the NFL, despite obtaining a potential franchise quarterback in the draft. Sam Bradford and Steven Jackson will not be paving the way to a surprise postseason appearance, I'm afraid.
The Seahawks are still pretty decent, but not decent enough for anyone to consider them in any significant capacity. Despite the hoops jumped through and cash paid for Charlie Whitehurst, it still looks like the geriatric and fragile Matt Hasselbeck will be the starting dude-under-center. They drafted well and got a new coach (who absolutely did not, under any circumstances run to the NFL to escape the painful sanctions placed on USC), but they'll have a tough go of it with overall middling talent.
The 49ers are the stiffest competition for Arizona, but they have the same big problem the Cardinals do: overall, they're a talented team, but all that talent is surrounding a former big-shot draft pick quarterback who hasn't really done much yet in the pros, and has strong bust potential. It's going to be Alex Smith versus Matt Leinart in a battle of who is least mediocre, for the chance to take the NFC West.
But Matt Leinart's been discussed enough. It's getting kind of stale, right? And we all know about guys like Larry Fitzgerald, Darnell Dockett, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Adrian Wilson. Guys who've been to Pro Bowls already. So let's discuss some of the other Cardinals players who will have a significant impact this coming season... the Four Red Birds of the Apocalypse, so to speak.
Chris "Beanie" Wells
More than any other player on the roster, Beanie is ripe to break out and destroy the league this season.
Though he started off slowly in his rookie year, his carries and yards-per-carry were up near the end, to the point that he was getting more carries than incumbent Tim Hightower and the entire rushing-yards-per-game of the team had jumped to 93.4 from 73.6 the season prior. Now, those numbers were still near the bottom of the league, but there was significant improvement once Wells' carries-per-game approached double digits.
Wells is a big sturdy hunk of a running back that has absolutely no problem merely plowing over defenders until they are dead or no longer attempting defense. However, he's also quite nimble, like a grizzly bear that had been raised and trained by antelope in some obscure pocket of the Alaskan wilderness. He's a sure thing to break the 1,000-yard mark in a tweaked offensive attack that's bound to rely less on the pass and more on the rush and crush.
Wells' impact will be dynamic, immediate, and awe-inspiring. It's been a while since Arizona has had a premier rusher that wasn't over the hill and approaching Alzheimer's, and I'm of the dead-on opinion the 2010-2011 season will thrust Beanie into the rushing elite of the NFL.
This will be Campbell's third year in the league and we already started to see some of his D-line dominance last season, particularly on special teams, when he alone was responsible for two blocked field goals.
Though Calais has a lot of (helpful and intimidating) weight, he's not weighted down, and his mobility on the defensive end is a huge boon to doing effective defensive things like stopping the run, disrupting the pass, and overall making the opposing offense work really hard for any points.
Dude's also the tallest guy on the Cardinals, looming over pretty much everyone at a towering-as-crap 6-foot-8. His unique physique goes miles toward inducing soiled pants in anyone unlucky enough to square off against him on the line.
I imagine there will be more and more dirty pantaloons in the upcoming season, as Campbell teams up with Dockett and (presumably) Dan Williams to form a damn scary frontline filled with large men and a single-minded agenda towards the cold-blooded murder of whoever's carrying the ball.
Early decided to say hello to the NFL world during the playoffs last season, admirably stepping up into the void left by Anquan Boldin's injuries. He showed himself to be a rough-and-tumble yards-after-catch trouble-maker that will be a handful for the cornerbacks and safeties of the world who already have to game plan for Fitz and (now) Steve Breaston.
Doucet, a third round pick out of LSU, struggled with his own injury problems in the early part of his career. A strained hamstring in his first training camp put him behind the eight ball and limited him to just seven games as a rookie, while a shoulder sprain suffered in training camp 2009 kept him tethered to the Cards bench until the midpoint of the season.
Once the young wideout finally earned playing time in 2009, he helped to mercifully end the error-filled Jerheme Urban era. Early acted as a promising fourth wide receiver for the balance of the second half of the season.
Now that Boldin has been shipped off to Baltimore to act as someone else's injury risk, Doucet has moved into the third receiver role he occupied during the playoffs. The major question for him will be whether he can maintain a consistent level of production throughout the season, not just one-off performances where passes are flying in from Kurt Warner.
It stands to reason that Doucet will be asked to carry some of the load left by Q, including those bubble screens Boldin handled so well. If my gut feelings are any indicator (and they should be), Early Doucet will more than answer the bell.
As the Cardinals moved to a pure 3-4 defense before the 2009, it seemed clear that they lacked one key element of that scheme. A stud nose tackle. While Bryan Robinson serves a key leadership role on the team and is an all-around decent player, he isn't gifted with the physical skills of a stud. You know who is? Dan Williams.
A 2010 first round draft pick out of Tennesee, Williams will almost certainly be counted on to play immediately alongside Dockett and Campbell. While Robinson is still on the roster and may even initially win the nose tackle job, you've got to think Big Dan will have every opportunity to take it from him.
Considering his combination of size and speed, Williams should be able to draw the double teams that Robinson is not quite capable of handling. Now I'm not a football expert, but I am almost certain that when one man is occupying two men it becomes easier for the other men - guys like Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, and Joey Porter - to arrive at the quarterback with malicious force.
As uncertain as the current linebacker situation is for the Cards, it is vital that Williams quickly becomes an impact player on the defensive line. The more pressure the D-line can apply, the less stress there will be on the linebackers to produce.
If the Cardinals are able to get good performances from the above four players (and if that Leinart fellow can be decent) they may just be able to slap another NFC West champions banner up in University of Phoenix Stadium. Now wouldn't that be swell?