The Arizona Cardinals enter the 2008 season in a relatively unfamiliar position. They're not coming off a losing season (something only two other Cardinals' teams can say in the past 20 years), they're not looking to replace many starters, and expectations are much higher than in most seasons. In fact, it's conceivable there will only be two new starters on both sides of the ball combined (Calvin Pace and Terrence Holt). The group could benefit the most from a second consecutive season working together is the offensive line. In 2007 Ken Whisenhunt took over the reigns of this franchise and his choice for offensive line coach was the heralded Russ Grimm. Together Whiz and Grimm set out to revamp a unit that ranked 32nd and 30th in rushing the previous two seasons and revamp, they did.
By the time the 2007 got ready to kick off, the Cardinals had three new starters. Two of the new faces would come via free agency (Mike Gandy and Al Johnson) and the third was the 5th overall pick in the draft, Levi Brown. The results weren't necessarily immediate or miraculous but they were no doubt a better unit than the Cardinals have had for quite some time. The Cardinals leading rushers had the highest yards per carry average since 2002 and gave up the least amount of sacks since before the turn of the century. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. They still ranked just 29th in the league in rushing but with a second season as a cohesive unit, they should improve quite a bit.
Levi Brown: The 5th overall pick just one year ago won the starting job from day one but had an 'up and down' season. He missed 5 starts because of an ankle injury and according to some it hampered him the rest of the year. He looked like a great player at times and at other times, he looked like a rookie learning on the job. One thing that no one questions though is the kid's ability to play. He'll be a solid player for years to come and should end up on a Pro Bowl roster or two.
Deuce Lutui: Depending on what you read, Lutui's either the best member of the group or he's the most likely to be replaced by top backup, Elton Brown. If you're asking me, Lutui is a young player (just turned 25) who's getting better with every game and already is above average as a run blocker. He started his first full season in 2007 and goes into this season with 24 starts under his belt. I'd look for him to really benefit from the consistency of having the same guy on either side for the second consecutive season.
Al Johnson: Johnson (29) was a free agent signee after four seasons in Dallas, two of which he was the starter. Most consider him the weak link of the group, but even with that label, he's pretty solid. His contract runs through 2010 but the coaches rave about last season's undrafted rookie, Lyle Sendlein. Johnson will be the starting center for 2008 and expect another solid, yet unspectacular season, but look for Sendlein to make a push for the job in 2009.
Reggie Wells: The longest tenured member of the group is also the most consistent. Wells was the Cardinals' sixth round pick in 2003 and he's been a starter since his second season, totally 58 starts. At 6'4 305, he's not the biggest guard around but he gets the job done. Wells performed admirably last season considering he had two new faces around him and has now started 32 consecutive games.
Mike Gandy: Gandy's third stop in the NFL landed him in Arizona for the 2007 season. He previously played for the Bears and Bills but arguably his best season was this past one. Even though he's considered a natural guard, he's had considerable experience at both positions. His play in 2007 made most Cardinal fans forget, or at least easily block out the six seasons of unspectacular play by Leonard Davis. Gandy is signed through 2009 so the Cardinals may look to either draft a replacement or groom rookie Brandon Keith to take over after 2008.
Top Backups: Elton Brown and Lyle Sendlein are the top backups with Brandon Keith also in the mix. Brown's entering his fourth year and will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. As much as the team would like to keep him, they'll probably have to have a starting spot for him in order to get him to come back. He's got the ability and some team will hand him a starting job, as well as starting money. Lyle Sendlein has future starter written all over him. It's not often that an undrafted free agent gets into a starting role during his rookie season but that's exactly what he did when Johnson went down with an injury. Is it a coincidence that Edge's averaged 5.44 yards carry during Sendlein's two starts, despite playing two of the top 12 rushing defenses? Keith is a massive rookie and he's raw but most agree that he has the tools to play in this league. It'll take him at least a year of development though.
So how confident are you that this offensive line can help lead this team to playoffs? Who's the strongest and weakest link and do you think the team should be looking for another backup tackle?