Well the Arizona Cardinals players, coaches and staff have left Flagstaff meaning that another training camp is officially in our rear view mirror. This will ultimately go down as a training camp that was dominated by the Boldin's trade demands but for now we can't forget that many other things were accomplished and some questions still need to be answered.
Compliment to Edge: Edgerrin James hasn't been the elite back that the Cardinals thought they were getting when the signed him as a free agent but he hasn't had much help either. His first year in the desert he ran behind a horrible offensive line and he's never had a legitimate backup to give him a break and share the load. The Cardinals seem to have given him some help this year though with rookie Tim Hightower. At the very least Hightower should take over the short yardage and goal line carries and he could be on the fast track to a future starting role. Hightower's shown quick feet, good vision and an unexpected burst that that has caused quite the stir among coaches and fans alike.
Defensive Depth: We all know that the defense fell of a cliff last year after injuries to several key players robbed the unit of their explosive play makers. They didn't have the depth to be competitive last year but things have changed in 2008. The front seven looks to have solid players two deep at nearly every position. The offseason acquisitions of Travis LaBoy, Clark Haggans, Bryan Robinson and Matt Stewart have infused quality depth in to a front seven that desperately needed it. All four of them have starting experience in the this league and their mix of youth and veteran leadership could help vault this defense into the upper half of the league.
BJ's Replacement: Heading into the offseason we weren't quite sure who would replace Bryant Johnson as the third receiver and the options included as many as five names. By the first preseason game though, the competition was all but over. Steve Breaston followed up an impressive mini-camp with an equally, if not more impressive training camp and preseason. He brings the kind of speed and quickness to the wide receiver corps that they haven't had in a while. He looks like he's poised for a great sophomore season and provide a unique compliment to the Pro Bowl duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
Where's the Tight Ends?: Before camp the tight end group looked deep, talented and poise for a breakout, but with camp over and the pre-season halfway over we've seen very little the group. Leonard Pope was recovering from an ankle injury and even though he hasn't missed any practices, he hasn't shown much in game time to convince anyone that he's truly 100%. Ben Patrick looked like he was ready to challenge Pope for the starting job but a high ankle sprain against the Chiefs will keep him out until at least the opener. They even had to sign a tight end of the streets after Troy Bienemann couldn't get healthy. Through two games the tight ends have combined for 3 receptions for 23 yards and that kind of production won't get the job done.
Are the Special Teams really special?: The Cardinals lost four games by less than a touchdown and in those games Neil Rackers missed 3 field goals, including losses to Baltimore, Washington, and San Francisco. When the season ended the Cardinals were 31st in the league in field goal percentage and one of only ten teams to miss an extra point. There was some thought that Rackers would have a better year in 2008 because he likes Dirk Johnson as his holder and he's finally recovered from a sports hernia that plagued him in 2007, but Rackers hasn't been terribly good in the preseason with a missed extra point and kickoff that ended up out of bounds. The Cardinals need Rackers to return to the kicker who made over 93% of his field goals (including 6 of 7 from over 50) in 2005.
Who's on the Nose?: We knew going in that Gabe Watson would probably miss most of camp and we thought that Alan Branch would come into camp and perform well enough to stake some claim to keeping the job permanently. Much to our surprise though free agent veteran Bryan Robinson opened camp as the starter at nose tackle and he's been good enough to keep Alan Branch running with the second string. Robinson is not exactly to type of player that the coaching staff would want as the center of the defense so him starting is more of a result of what Branch has not done than what Robinson has done. Hopefully Watson will be ready to go by the start of the regular season because if he isn't the center of the defense could end up being a weakness for opposing offenses to exploit. Branch also needs to step up and show the ability that made the Cardinals trade up to snag him just one year ago.
What do you guys think? Did camp make your expectations higher or lower heading into September 7th? Who else exceeded or fell below your expectations?