Part of building a successful franchise in the NFL is improving as a team and as individuals. The Cardinals have experienced success by doing just that, with key contributors increasing their production year in and year out. Ken Whisenhunt's philosophy of sitting rookies on the bench in their first season, and taking what they've learned into the following year has worked tremendously so far. The first nominee on the list is a perfect example.
Before we see the nominees, congratulations to Beanie Wells for becoming the Cardinals rookie of the year. He brought a different type of rushing to the offense that the Cardinals had lacked in recent years, and literally ran away with the votes last week.
Here are the nominees for the Arizona Cardinal Most Improved Player of the Year:
Calais Campbell, DE:
When Calais Campbell was drafted out of the second round in 2008, he spent his entire rookie season playing on special teams and in a situational role. This past year, Campbell was given the opportunity to start at defensive end and flourished. He showed his worth, netting a team high with seven sacks. Campbell plays with a motor to the ceiling and his massive frame(6'8) helps him disrupt even the best offensive lines. He doubled his tackle total and registered the first seven sacks of his career this season. With Campbell breaking out in his second season, will we see the real Cody Brown and Greg Toler in 2010?
Deuce Lutui, G:
In his first three seasons, most Cardinal fans grew accustomed to witnessing Deuce Lutui at the end of a sack or penalty. Old habits died in 2009 when the offensive guard changed his bone-head ways. Lutui had a relatively successful year, blocking for Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower up the middle, but he made his money protecting a 38 year old quarterback. Lutui only allowed 1.5 sacks this past year after allowing 6.25 the previous two seasons. He also dramatically lowered the yellow flags thrown against him, committing just four penalties in 2009 after committing a combined 17 penalties the two years before. The lone offensive player on the list may have secured his spot as the most improved player of the year.
Alan Branch, DT:
After Alan Branch's firs two seasons in the NFL, Ken Whisenhunt had compared Branch's passion for football to a light bulb, declaring that it hadn't turned on yet. I could've easily claimed that some one had smashed the light bulb and tossed the remains in the trash until this past year. Under Bill Davis, Branch played extremely close to his full potential, easily making 2009 his best year as a Cardinal. He received more playing time from the coaches, and was inserted into a more prominent role on the defense. This year alone, he had three more tackles then his previous two seasons combined, and also recorded his first two career sacks. With Bryan Robinson close to the end of his career, it's not a stretch to assume Branch could be the future starter on the defensive line.
Clark Haggans, LB:
After a disappointing first season with the Cardinals - in which Haggans was placed on injured reserve and sat out the amazing playoff run - the outside linebacker rebounded tremendously in 2009. He won the starting job in training camp and was a key cog on the defense during the season. Haggans completely surpassed the previous year's tackle total, 18 to 72. He also sacked opposing quarterbacks five times to just a singe sack last year, and the five were his highest total since 2006 when he had six. Haggans is closer to becoming a liability at the age of 33, but still brings something to the table at this point in his career.
So there you have it - your nominees for the Cardinals most improved player of the year award. Who did you vote for and why?