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Top Five Things To Watch As The Arizona Cardinals Play Out The String

Well this season is lost, here are some things to watch in the Cardinals final six games, since the team won't be fighting for a playoff berth.

Not to pile on here, but the Cardinals' season is over. A lifeless loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday was the Cardinals' fifth straight this season and put them a step closer to their first below .500 season in the Ken Whisenhunt era.

The problems with this team are almost too many to count at this point. Derek Anderson sucks, Ken Whisenhunt is calling strange plays at strange times, the offensive line can't block, and the team is making mental mistakes.

My personal favorite moment happened in the second quarter of yesterday's game where, after a wide open Dwayne Bowe hauled in a pass, FOX announcer Ron Pitts said, "They just forgot about Dwayne Bowe."

That's the Cardinals season in six words.

Now that the season is dunzo, you're probably wondering why you should bother watching. That's what I'm here for. 

Here are what I think are the top five things to watch while the Cardinals play out the string -- besides the fact that you're just a glutton for punishment.

No. 5 - Is Alan Branch Worth Bringing Back?

If you've been watching the Cardinals defense over the past few weeks, you'll notice that defensive tackle Alan Branch has begun to come into his own a bit.

A second-round pick out of Michigan in 2007 -- ahead of players such as Sidney Rice and LaMarr Woodley -- Branch has been an underachiever in each of his first three seasons. With Branch entering the final year of his deal and the Cards drafting Dan Williams in the first round, you'd assume that 2010 was it for the big man.

But to this point in the season, Branch has been a revelation.

In just nine games, Branch has already set career highs in solo tackles and tackles while tying his career high in sacks. Obviously, it's hard to judge defensive tackles on numbers alone, but Branch has regularly caused disruption in the middle, finally using his size to his advantage.

Now that he's on the right track, its certainly worth watching the rest of the season to see if he can put himself in position to earn a new contract. Will Branch continue to be the two-sack monster he was against Seattle in Week 7 or will he revert to the guy we saw for three years?

With Bryan Robinson likely to retire after the year, it'd be nice to keep a motivated Branch around to retain defensive line depth.

No. 4 - Can LaRod Stephens-Howling make the Pro Bowl?

If you're looking for a possible Pro Bowler from the Cardinals for this dark season then look no further than the second-year special teams ace out of Pittsburgh. 

Coming into Sunday's game against Kansas City, LSH was sixth in the NFL in kickoff return average at 27.8 and one of only three kick returners with two touchdowns (Leon Washington and Brandon Tate are the others). He also had another return against Atlanta negated.

Stephens-Howling missed the game against Kansas City with a hamstring injury, but provided he's able to recover from that, I'll bet he takes at least one more back this year. He'll certainly have the opportunity as he's returned a NFL-high 40 kicks. Go, Cards defense!

But it's not just the return game with LSH; he's also an elite kick and punt cover man and has downed more punts inside the 10 than I can count. Though he doesn't return punts like Washington, he more than makes up for it with his coverage ability.   

When Tru McBride let a first half punt bounce past him into the end zone, tell me you weren't thinking about how LSH definitely would have downed it.

For insight as to how good I am at evaluating talent, check out my analysis of the play of LSH during Week 6 of 2009:

"What does LaRod Stephens-Howling add that is of value to the team? He gets blown up when he tries to block, doesn't seem all that shifty, and he's one of the worst kickoff returners in the NFL. We can keep waiting for LSH to break a kickoff like he did a few times in preseason, but I'd prefer to have a guy who can get us out to the 30 yard line."

A little over a year later I'm watching Steve Breaston return kicks and bemoaning the loss of LSH. Looks like trusting me would be a mistake.   

No. 3 - Is Greg Toler a reliable second corner?

When the Cardinals used a fourth-round pick on Greg Toler from little St. Paul's College in Virginia, it was acknowledged just how raw he was. Anytime you're using a pick on a guy from a school that once had to cancel its season opener because they didn't have helmets or pads, raw kind of comes with the territory.

Toler played in 13 games last season, but was basically an emergency defensive back. Yet after the Bryant McFadden experiment was a massive failure in 2009, Toler earned the trust of the coaches and was bumped up to the number two corner job alongside Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

This season, Toler is second on the Cardinals in tackles and, in the early part of the season, looked quite solid in coverage. However, in recent weeks, defenses have been picking on Toler to the tune of some pretty ugly results. 

It's possible that the foot injury that caused Toler to miss yesterday's game against Kansas City has limited his effectiveness, so it will be interesting to see how he performs upon his return. 

He's certainly still a work in progress, but it warrants watching to see whether Toler really is going to develop into a good second corner or if he's perhaps better suited to a nickel role.

There are six games to find out. If Toler continues to struggle, the team shouldn't hesitate to snag a veteran corner this offseason -- or use another high draft pick. 

No. 2 - Beanie Wells or Bust?

Though he's in just his second season in the NFL, Beanie Wells has quickly become one of the most maligned Arizona Cardinals.

Maybe it's because he was a first-round pick or maybe it's because he oozes with potential, but people have high expectations for Wells. But right now his main problem is staying on the field.

Every time it looks like Wells is going to put a stranglehold on the starting running back job, he seems to suffer an injury. He missed the first two games this season with a knee injury and after games of 20, 14, and 16 carries, again banged up his knee and carried the ball just once the two subsequent games.

Beanie returned to the Cardinal lineup against Kansas City and rushed eight times for 39 yards while splitting carries with Tim Hightower.

After his rookie campaign in which he rushed for nearly 800 yards and seven touchdowns, Wells has just 231 yards and a couple scores this season. Now in the stretch run of the season, he claims his body feels the best it has since training camp. It's about time to see if he can begin capitalizing on his sizable potential or if the team should start thinking about a new running back.

I'm not ready to bury Beanie by any means, but I'd like to see him develop some consistency in the remaining six games and do so without getting hurt. I'd like to know if Beanie Wells can be a guy you regularly hand the ball to 20 times a game and the only way to find out is to actually hand him the ball.

No. 1 - Which college quarterback should the Cards draft?

We all know Derek Anderson is finished after the year and that handing Max Hall the job is as good a decision as well ... starting Max Hall in an NFL game. As far as I'm concerned, the Cardinals should blow out their entire QB depth chart and start over -- though I suppose John Skelton can stay on as a project third QB.

Like Mike Jurecki, I think the Cardinals will go after Marc Bulger as a veteran QB next season, but considering their likely draft position -- which should be Top 10, if not higher (just two games out of the first spot in the draft) -- they should also pick a guy up in the draft.

Unless the bottom falls out at an epic rate, they probably won't be able to snag Stanford's Andrew Luck -- the likely first pick in the draft because of plays like this at the :27 second mark -- but there is no shortage of other options available. 

I'm not crazy about Arkansas' Ryan Mallet, since a tall quarterback with accuracy issues seems like the same mess the team is in now, but Mallet has improved to 67% this year. Arkansas' final game of the year against LSU should provide a tough and interesting test, as will whatever high level bowl the 9-2 Razorbacks will be picked for. Tune in.

If inaccurate, overrated quarterbacks are your thing, then you might want to check out Jake Locker. I know some people don't follow college football and have probably just heard about Locker as a first round pick, but I'd suggest checking out one of the final two Husky games of the year so you can give him your own eye test.

What you'll see is a guy who struggles with accuracy and has repeatedly failed to step up his game when pressure is on. As I've told Justin Burning, if the Cardinals use a first rounder on him, I'll cry.

Provided the Cardinals don't go quarterback in the first round, they may be able to snag juniors Nick Foles (Arizona) or Cameron Newton (Auburn) in the second round if they choose to come out. With all his troubles with the NCAA, Newton is a mortal lock to declare himself eligible. 

Foles is an easy watch since he plays down in Tucson and what you'll see is a highly accurate passer -- he has the fourth highest completion percentage (71%) in all of college football. As for Newton, he's going to run an awful lot, so expect to see a lot of that, but when he throws he's got a rifle arm.

Blaine Gabbert from Missouri is a possibility, but I doubt he comes out of the draft this season while a guy like Christian Ponder is probably more of a middle round option. I don't know about you, but if this team is going QB, it needs to be a higher pick. 

Do you have some of your own reasons? Feel free to share.