Shipp drops on Cardinals' depth chart

For now at least, old No. 22 is the new No. 1 guy on the depth chart.

In a somewhat surprising move, coach Dennis Green concluded the Arizona Cardinals' formal offseason conditioning schedule Thursday by announcing that NFL career rushing leader Emmitt Smith will go to camp as the No. 1 tailback.

Three-year veteran Marcel Shipp, the Cardinals' leading rusher each of the last two seasons, and projected by most observers as the 2004 starter, has been demoted to No. 2, Green announced.

"With the style of play we are going to have, Emmitt Smith is now our No. 1 running back," Green said Thursday evening. "I think as we try to counter-punch teams, and beat them over the top with big plays, we need a back who is really good at finding seams ... and I think he fits perfectly in our three-wide receiver (offense)."

A lot can happen, of course, to change the pecking order once the Cards report to camp Aug. 1. But for now, Smith is the starter, despite a dismal 2003 campaign that concluded with the future Hall of Famer playing behind the more productive Shipp and nursing a fractured scapula.

Earlier in the offseason, Green publicly lauded Shipp's play and predicted that he would enjoy a breakout 2004 season. Green set 1,000 rushing yards and nine touchdowns as benchmarks for Shipp. At the same time, Green made it clear Smith would be a backup.

Even the prideful Smith, who some feared might plummet to No. 3 behind Shipp and second-year tailback Josh Scobey, acknowledged he might be relegated to serving simply as a role player and tutor for younger players.

Green clearly changed his mind -- perhaps in an effort to motivate Shipp, an undrafted free agent in 2001 from the University of Massachusetts who has always been a high-effort performer -- during the Cardinals' recent organized team practices.

Smith, 35, is entering the final season of the two-year, $7.5 million contract he signed last spring. Coming off the poorest season of his stellar 14-year NFL career, there was some speculation he would retire this spring. But Smith insisted that he would honor his contract and vowed he still had some mileage left on his treads.

Still, even Smith conceded Thursday's announcement was surprising.

"I never truly expected it because, when (Green) first got here, he talked about Marcel being the No. 1 guy," Smith said. "But things do change. This is what it is on June 17th, but we have about 90 more days before the first game of the season, so I guess anything is possible. I'm going to take this with a lot of humility and go out and do the best that I can."

Playing in only 10 games last season, Smith carried 90 times for 256 yards and just two touchdowns, all career lows. In his last start, Oct. 5 against his former Dallas Cowboys teammates, Smith carried six times for minus-one yard and sustained the broken scapula that sidelined him six weeks.

Shipp rushed 228 times for 830 yards. He also led the Cardinals in rushing in 2002, when he replaced former first-round pick Thomas Jones as the starter and carried 188 times for 834 yards.

"It caught me off guard," Shipp said. "It was a surprise, but you have to take the bitter with the sweet. It happens. They didn't tell me a reason why. ... I don't ask questions or look for a reason. I'm disappointed, but I'm still a big part of this team, and I'll do whatever I can to help it win."

In addition to the tailback move, Green announced that a pair of rookies, first-round wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald of Pittsburgh and third-round defensive tackle Darnell Dockett of Florida State, will enter camp as starters.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.