The 2006 season was yet another in a long line of disappointing campaigns for the Arizona Cardinals, and the impact was felt in the fantasy production of the team's top players. Newcomer Edgerrin James frustrated fantasy owners more than ever as he sputtered through his first season in the desert. Injury problems cut into the overall production of Larry Fitzgerald, and although Anquan Boldin played well overall, he caught only four touchdown passes.
The Matt Leinart era began, with erratic results. Rarely did things go right under coach Dennis Green, but now there is some renewed hope for a team that seems to have been jinxed ever since it moved from St. Louis, if not longer. New coach Ken Whisenhunt brings a much-needed new outlook with him from Pittsburgh, and he will try to establish more balance on offense.
Head coach Ken Whisenhunt
Assistant head coach/offensive line coach Russ Grimm
Head coach Dennis Green
OT Leonard Davis
Key backups/position battles
Leinart initially was ticketed to sit behind Kurt Warner last season, but he was pushed into the starting job by October and immediately showed a lot of promise. Leinart threw four touchdown passes and just one interception in his first two starts, but then he delivered up-and-down play the rest of the season. Leinart is confident and accurate, but he wasn't always able to get comfortable behind a shaky offensive line. Yet he still showed a lot of potential and should be more dependable in 2007. With improved protection and better support from his running game, plus excellent weaponry at wide receiver, Leinart should take some clear steps forward in the coming season. You should be able to rotate him effectively with another quality option at quarterback. Warner still makes good reads and can be an adequate fantasy fill-in if he is needed to play at any time.
James was supposed to be a long-awaited savior in Arizona, but he was thwarted too often behind shoddy blocking. He was often less of a factor than he used to be in Indianapolis because the Cardinals played from behind more often. It took 337 carries for James to rush for 1,159 yards, and he didn't crack the 100-yard mark until Week 13. He also was used much less to catch passes, with his total of 217 yards the second-lowest of his career. Whisenhunt is expected to put a major emphasis on improving the running game in 2007, and new offensive line coach Russ Grimm will be dedicated to getting maximum production out of a new-look line. James certainly won't be close to the elite fantasy player he was with the Colts, but with an emphasis on regaining respectability offensively, he should be more statistically reliable and produce well enough to be a solid No. 2 fantasy running back. With Whisenhunt focusing much more on the run than Green's regime did, Marcel Shipp should get a decent number of carries and continue to get some short-yardage scoring chances. J.J. Arrington won't be useful, but newly acquired fullback Terrelle Smith is another addition that brightens the picture for the run game.
Fitzgerald can be one of fantasy football's truly elite receivers. He's a big, quick target with a knack for making the big play and regular catches in the red zone. After Fitzgerald caught 18 touchdown passes in his first two NFL seasons, hamstring problems caused him to miss three games and threw him off his game for a short stretch. He bounced back to score four times in December and should be one of the top wideouts selected in most fantasy drafts this year. Expect him to return to top-level status in 2007. Boldin, who has been an injury concern in the past, played a full schedule last season and battled hard for every ball thrown his way. Often double-covered, especially in the red zone, he still managed to average a career-best 14.5 yards per catch and get more than 1,200 receiving yards. Boldin should get open more often for touchdown receptions this season, and his production should be on par with Fitzgerald's over a full season again. Bryant Johnson didn't offer much fantasywise when pressed into a more prominent role last year, and he's strictly a desperation fantasy option if he is needed to spell Fitzgerald or Boldin at any time.
Leonard Pope is a huge target, but he was invisible as a rookie. He struggled to get open last year and was not reliable as a blocker. He may well be pushed for playing time in the preseason by Troy Bienemann, who went undrafted last year. The former Washington State star is trying to come back from major knee problems, but he has impressed the coaching staff during early workouts. Pope has the talent, but Bienemann might have more drive to succeed. Either way, the Cardinals are looking at using a desperation option at this position and neither guy should be drafted in fantasy leagues.
Neil Rackers was the ultimate fantasy kicker in 2005, but he wasn't quite as outstanding in '06. He wasn't nearly as effective from beyond 50 yards, and he missed nine attempts overall, after missing only twice the year before. Still, Rackers should be very dependable even if he isn't quite the fantasy superstar he was two seasons ago. He should continue to stack up a healthy amount of attempts this year as the offense puts him into scoring position on a frequent basis. He also will be playing his home games indoors. Rackers still should be one of the first few kickers selected in any fantasy league this year. You want a guy who is annually reliable and sometimes spectacular, and Rackers certainly fits the bill.
What to look for in 2007
Although there is no question the Cardinals have most of the right players at the key skill positions, finally getting solid blocking will be the key to offensive continuity. Grimm -- who also comes over from Pittsburgh, where he did a terrific job -- can reconstruct the look and attitude of the unit and, in turn, fantasy players should see the running game operate more steadily. With better blocking, Leinart can lead a steadier and sometimes explosive passing game. Veteran center Al Johnson, and new tackles Mike Gandy and Levi Brown, the prized first-round pick, are three key pieces in a changing environment. The Cardinals ranked 30th in rushing yards per game, but Whisenhunt should help the team make great strides forward after his three-year run as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator. The Cardinals certainly will be improved on offense in 2007, and although they certainly should continue to help fantasy leaguers with good passing numbers, there is real hope the running game will look considerably better than it did last year.
The Cardinals have two of the best young wide receivers in the NFL, and both will post numbers worthy of No. 1 fantasy starters at their position as long as they avoid any major injuries. Leinart will continue to improve and should be very productive when the matchup is right. Use him judiciously, and he should serve you well. James can be drafted with confidence as your second fantasy running back, and he's going to get a lot of work again because Whisenhunt plans to feature the running game much more than the Cardinals did last year. Arizona still doesn't have much top-level personnel on the line, but the blocking should be more stable. The Cardinals do have the overall talent to stay in the playoff picture until the final weeks of the season, which should make most of their top players useful down the stretch in fantasy leagues. Even if the team falls out of the playoff race early, the young players should continue to get considerable work in the final weeks as Whisenhunt looks to the future.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.