The Arizona Cardinals started the 2007 training camp with high hopes for a promising season, especially on defense where Clancy Pendergast was transitioning to a 3-4. The defense was stacked with play-makers and pass rushers, but by the end of the season the Cardinals defense looked more like a M-A-S-H unit than a functioning group. The biggest losses were Adrian Wilson (missed 7 games), Chike Okeafor (entire season), Bertrand Berry (missed 7 games) and top backup Aaron Francisco (6 games). In total these four players accounted for 206 tackles, 19.5 sacks and 6 interceptions in 52 games combined in 2006 but in 2007 they only managed 96 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 2 interceptions in 18 combined games. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that when you lose that kind of production, you're bound to suffer.
The Cardinals open camp with hopes and expectations of flying high in 2008, but they'll have to be able to avoid the injuries that plagued them last year. They did make an effort the bolster the depth of the defense but if the Cardinals have any dreams of achieving their lofty goals, they need Wilson, Okeafor and Berry to stay healthy.
Adrian Wilson: Non-Cardinal fans know him as a guy with a cool You-Tube video but Cardinal fans know that he's much more than that. He's one of the most under appreciated players in the NFL, a team leader and versatile safety who can attack opposing offenses in a variety of ways. During his seven seasons in the league he's totaled over 15 sacks and 15 interceptions, and if that doesn't sound that impressive just consider than Roy Williams (5 time PB), Troy Polamalu (4 time PB), Bob Sanders (2 time PB) and Ed Reed (4 time PB) haven't accomplished that yet. Wilson is a game changer who can lay the big hit supporting the run and breakup a deep pass on the very next play. He's been the heart and soul of the Arizona Cardinals defense since becoming a starter in 2002 and his 86 career starts make his veteran leadership irreplaceable.
Chike Okeafor: Remember the days when Calvin Pace was a draft bust who could barely get on the field and only had one season with more than a single sack. Remember who was starting ahead of him? That right, Chike Okeafor and his eight sacks a season average kept Calvin Pace on the pine until a torn biceps ended his 2007 season in the first preseason game. He's healthy now though and ready to make fans who wanted the Cardinals to re-sign Pace, forget about his 6.5 sack season. Okeafor is stoked about the move to linebacker where he'll have a clearer path to the quarterback and described the opportunity to play in space as "freedom." Some people question his age but Okeafor is quick to point out that he's in the best shape of his life and ready to have fun again:
"I’m 32 years young," Okeafor said. "Never worked a day in my life. (This is) recess, dude. It is good to be back with the boys."
Bertrand Berry: Berry's health is a bigger question mark than either Wilson or Okeafor and he may not have the true athleticism to play outside linebacker full-time but one thing is for sure, he can get after the quarterback. In his four season as a starter before 2007 he averaged .76 sacks a game and it seems that injuries are the only thing capable of slowing him down. His 2004 season, his first in Arizona, still ranks as one of the best seasons for a Cardinal pass rusher when he ended the season with 14.5 sacks (3rd highest ever for a Cardinal) and included a streak of four straight games with a sack and a four sack game. He's ended the past three seasons on the injured reserve but he's healthy now and taking snaps with the first team at OLB opposite of Okeafor. Hopefully with Berry splitting time with new Cardinal, Travis LaBoy, the limited snaps will keep him fresh and healthy for the entire season.
Only time will tell if the Cardinals defense will be able to hold up to the rigors of a grueling regular season, but with the new depth there is optimism that the future for the defense is bright, out here in the desert. Thoughts? How good can this unit be, top 15, top 10?