The Cardinals have had a successful three-year run since hiring head coach Ken Whisenhunt, winning eight, nine, and ten games and going to the 2008 Super Bowl, only to lose to the Steelers on a last-minute touchdown.
The road gets decidedly tougher in 2010, however, as retirement and free agency have robbed the team of many of their key performers.
Topping the list is the loss of Kurt Warner to retirement. The future Hall of Fame quarterback enjoyed a career renaissance in Arizona, playing at a Pro Bowl level and providing the franchise with a swagger they never had before. Based on the 2009 performances of Matt Leinart and free agent acquisition Derek Anderson, the Cardinals are likely to experience a large dropoff at the quarterback position.
The Cardinals also lost pass-rushing linebacker Bertrand Berry to retirement and defensive stalwarts Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle to free agency. Anquan Boldin, who was one half of the league’s top receiving duo, was traded away, as was starting cornerback Bryant McFadden.
On offense, the Cardinals are likely to turn to the running game far more frequently in 2010, relying on the impressive young tandem of Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower. Wells is a punishing, downhill runner with enough speed to get outside, but he had ball security issues as a rookie in 2009. Hightower is an excellent receiver and, while lacking speed, is an above-average runner with an ability to make tacklers miss.
Despite the loss of Boldin, the Cardinals are well-stocked at wide receiver. They feature perhaps the league’s most talented wide receiver in Larry Fitzgerald, as well as Steve Breaston, who topped 1,000 yards in a backup role in 2008. Early Doucet is a promising player who came on late last season and in the playoffs. His game is much like Boldin’s; built on power, toughness, and an ability to get open on short and intermediate routes.
As in prior years, the Cardinals depth chart at tight end is a black hole in terms of what it brings to the passing game. None of their tight ends offer much upside, and all are more adept at blocking.
With Whisenhunt at the controls, the Cardinals have reached a new level of respect not previously experienced by the franchise. Expectations are deservedly lower in 2010 than in prior years, but they could surprise if Leinart proves he has matured and the defense can hold up its end of the bargain.
QB Matt Leinart
Now that Kurt Warner has decided to retire, the Cardinals offense could see a change in philosophy, switching to a ground game featuring Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower. The Cardinals passed the ball almost 62% of the time in 2009, ranking 12th in passing (251 yards per game) and 28th in rushing (93.4 yards per game). With Leinart at the helm, you have to figure the passing numbers will decrease in 2010. Warner’s accuracy, ability to read defenses, and decision-making allowed him to succeed in the desert. Those are all qualities that Leinart has not displayed during his time under center. He does have at his disposal one of the best targets in the game in Larry Fitzgerald, which makes Leinart a great upside pick as your backup fantasy QB.
RB Beanie Wells
Although Wells did become the feature back down the stretch in 2009, he split carries with Tim Hightower for most of last season. Consequently, he’ll be a nice upside pick in 2010, but you’ll likely overpay for his true value. Hightower will continue to receive carries on first and second down and will play extensively on third downs. While there is some concern that Hightower will get the goal line work, it’s worth noting that during the final four games of last season Wells had 14 red zone touches and Hightower had only 6. The addition of Alan Faneca on the line doesn’t hurt and should lead to improved numbers for the Cardinals running game as a whole.
RB Tim Hightower
Hightower heads into training camp as the starter based on experience, but expect him to share carries with Beanie Wells. While there are no guarantees that Hightower will open the season as the team’s starter, he will receive extensive playing time both as a change-of-pace back and as a target in the passing game. With Matt Leinart rather than Kurt Warner starting at quarterback, both Arizona running backs should see a significant amount of work in 2010. Hightower’s fantasy value shines in PPR leagues—his 63 catches out of the backfield a year ago was second only to Ray Rice, and he has 96 receptions over his first two years in the league. If the Arizona offense doesn’t experience a large dropoff with Leinart under center, Hightower shapes up as an excellent flex option in leagues that employ the position.
WR Larry Fitzgerald
Despite finishing with just 1,092 yards last season, Fitzgerald finished fourth in points among fantasy wide receivers thanks to his 13 touchdowns. The loss of Warner may not impact Fitzgerald as much as you might think. Warner very rarely threw deep balls last season, and while Leinart’s accuracy remains a question mark, it’s likely that Fitzgerald will see more deep opportunities with Leinart under center. He’s still a feared weapon in the league and the Cardinals will use him as such. Expect Fitzgerald to once again finish in the top five among fantasy wideouts.
WR Steve Breaston
In 2010 Breaston will have a chance to improve upon his 55 catches for 712 yards and 3 touchdowns of a year ago as he moves into the starting lineup opposite Larry Fitzgerald. Breaston has put up solid production in Arizona’s pass-based offense over the last two years, where he benefitted from the attention that Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin received. However, there is some concern Breaston may struggle against starting cornerbacks, and his production will also be impacted if the Cardinals shift to a more run-focused offense, as expected. His value is no better than a WR3 in most fantasy formats.
WR Early Doucet
The loss off Anquan Boldin has opened the door for Doucet. He has struggled through most of his first two years in the league, finding it hard to gain playing time in a talented Cardinals wide receiver rotation. He finished with two solid games during the playoffs last season and will fill the third-wideout role in the Cardinals passing attack. However, with Breaston holding down a starting spot, it’s tough to project Doucet as anything better than a fantasy WR4. Still, monitor his status in training camp. There is a possibility he could unseat Breaston for Boldin’s old starting position given that, of the two players, his game more closely resembles Boldin’s.
TE Ben Patrick
You have better options. Arizona rarely uses the tight end in their passing game; Patrick led all Cardinal tight ends with a mere 146 yards and two touchdowns. Unless Matt Leinart becomes a check-down king, Patrick will be useless for fantasy purposes. Stay away…very far away.