The NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals will report to training camp later today, although the first actual practice will not take place until Friday morning. When the team takes the field, most of last year's squad will be intact but several players will be facing critical seasons in their career. Some veterans are trying to prove that they still have enough gas in the tank for another great season while some young players are trying to turn potential into production. The team can always count on solid, if not downright spectacular, production from the likes of Warner, Fitzgerald, Boldin and Adrian Wilson, but the following five players could be the difference between another successful playoff run or a January spent watching other teams run to glory.
Chike Okeafor: The Cardinals have Pro Bowl caliber talent at every level of the defense (A-dub, Dansby and Dockett) but Okeafor might just be the difference between a top 10 defense or a unit that struggles to support a high powered offense. Okeafor is entering his third season as a stand up outside linebacker (if you count the 2007 season in which a triceps injury in training camp landed him on IR), but there will be a major change this year. During the 2008 season, Okeafor played on the opposite side of the defense mirroring the 'predator' position created by Clancy Pendergast. In his scheme the 'predator' (Travis Laboy and/or Bertrand Berry) was essentially a pass rusher on almost every down while Okeafor often dropped into coverage, playing a role similar to a 4-3 outside backer. While this new role did lead to a career high in tackles, it also neutralized Okeafor's best asset as a defender, rushing the passer. His 4.5 sacks were his lowest total since 2001 and, rightly so, left a feeling among some that Clancy Pendergast's 'hybrid' system never quite utilized Okeafor's attacking skill set. The defense is reportedly going to look and act much more like a traditional 3-4 unit this season and that should result in Okeafor returning to an attacking role, but at the age of 33 can Okeafor still be an effective pass rusher? Not only are the Cardinals banking on the fact that Okeafor can still turn the corner against more offensive tackles, the rest of his career might hinging on the answer to that question. Entering the final year of contract, Okeafor needs prove that he can still perform at a high level. The Cardinals secondary, on paper, looks much improved from a year ago but they'll need Okeafor lead a consistent pass rush.
Lyle Sendlein: Sendlein is entering his third season as a pro and his second season as a starter so it might seem premature to call this a critical season in his career, but 2009 could be a turning point for young Lyle. After being thrust into the starting lineup after an injury to Al Johnson and suffering an early season shoulder injury, Sendlein struggled with larger defensive tackles and even got manhandled in several games. After a rough season most 'outsiders' considered the center position to be one of the team's biggest needs but Coach Whisenhunt spent most of the off season singing the praises of his young center and backed it up by not selecting an interior lineman until late in the seventh round. With the team's goal of becoming more balanced on offense in 2009, Sendlein will be one of the guys in the trenches that must improve in order for the ground game to be more effective. It's way to early in his career to say that this is a 'make or break' season for Sendlein but how much he improves could just make or break the Cardinals' plans to become a balanced offense.
Gabe Watson: At the end of the 2007 season, Watson looked like a player who was ready to have a breakout season. He started all 16 games in his sophomore season with the Cards and most thought that he'd have a breakout season in 2008, cementing himself as the Cardinals nose tackle of the future. All of that hope was quickly dashed by a freak treadmill accident that left Watson with a fractured knee cap. Off season surgery and rehab left him with numerous pins and screws in a knee that was right in 2008. The resulting pain and discomfort caused Watson to miss the first four games of the season and he didn't start a game all season until the Super Bowl. Shortly after the season ended Watson underwent a second operation on the knee to remove some of the pins that were causing his discomfort. The new hope is that Watson can return to his 2007 form and again reclaim the starting nose tackle job. That would not only solidify the middle of a defense that struggled against opposing running games last year but also set Watson up for a lucrative contract next off season. A true nose tackle in a 3-4 defense is a hard position to fill and if Watson can prove that he's a wide-bodied run stuffer, his future could be filled with plenty of dollar signs and the Cardinals defense could be quite formidable.
Co-Offensive Coordinators: The co-offensive coordinator title is a rare sight in the NFL but that's what the Cardinals will employ in 2008. With the loss of Todd Haley in the off season, head coach Ken Whisenhunt decided that the best way to fill that void was to look in-house. The result was assistant head coach/offensive line coach Russ Grimm adding the title 'running game coordinator' to his door and former wide receivers coach Mike Miller now wears the 'passing game coordinator hat. To top that a third coach, Whisenhunt himself will call plays. That's quite a few voices trying to form a cohesive vision on the offensive side of the ball, but everyone has plenty of incentive to make this work. Whisenhunt is looking to follow up the most successful season in franchise history and quite possibly solidify himself as the most successful coach in franchise history (in a mere three seasons). Russ Grimm will certainly be watched by any team that could be looking for a new head coach next off season. Grimm, a long time highly regarded assistant coach, will get a shot at head coaching in the near future and another effective season with the co-coordinator title could be enough to push him over the top. Miller is hoping that a season as the co-coordinator leads to him stepping into the lone offensive coordinator next season, complete with play calling duties. While everyone is motivated to make this three-way work, it'll be an interesting dynamic to watch as the season progresses.
The Cardinals, as a whole, enter the season with unprecedented expectations and it will take a concerted effort from 53 players and an entire coaching staff to return to the sacred ground of January football in the NFL, but this group of players and coaches will go a long way to deciding the fate of the 2009 Arizona Cardinals. How do you see these guys performing? Who would you add to this list?