Camp Confidential: Cardinals' success depends on Leinart

Matt Leinart has played in just 17 games in two seasons -- totaling 13 touchdowns and 16 interceptions AP Photo/Matt York

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Kurt Warner threw more touchdown passes per attempt last season than Brett Favre, Matt Hasselbeck, David Garrard, Derek Anderson and Philip Rivers.

His reward was a spot on the Arizona Cardinals' bench heading into 2008.

The decision to restore unproven Matt Leinart as the starting quarterback in Arizona doesn't add up on the stat sheet. Warner tossed 27 touchdown passes last season as well as 17 interceptions. Leinart had two touchdowns with four interceptions when a shoulder injury ended his season after five starts.

"Yes, Kurt did a great job for us and he played well," second-year Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "But when Matt got hurt, he was our starter and he was making progress."

Whisenhunt saw enough from Leinart during a 23-20 victory over Seattle in Week 2 last season to feel good about the decision. Leinart completed 23 of 37 passes for 299 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

The Cardinals know what Warner can do. They obviously think Leinart has the potential to do more, particularly over the long term. Warner is 37 years old. Leinart is 25 and heading into his third season.

"The third year is a critical year for any player," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. "It's the make-or-break or year -- I don't care where you are drafted at. He is starting to become a pro.

"We are now in our second year [as a staff], so we are giving him a lot more technique stuff, stuff that I don't think he was getting early on at all."

Whisenhunt sees a new player emerging as Leinart becomes more comfortable.

"You see it in his body language, you see how he handles himself in the huddle and then you also see it in the confidence when he takes a step and he throws the football, or even when he makes the checks in the run game," Whisenhunt said. "There is not the hesitation that there used to be."

Key questions

1. Is Whisenhunt making the right choice at quarterback?

Yes. The Cardinals can always hand the offense back to Warner if Leinart falters. In the meantime, they need to find out if the progress Leinart has shown this offseason can carry over.

The organization has too much invested in Leinart, the 10th overall choice in the 2006 draft, to give up on him now. Young quarterbacks are more likely to achieve their potential when backed by the full support of their organizations.

The Cardinals have seen enough from Leinart since his season-ending injury to give him another chance. Leinart became more serious as a student of the game, breaking down opponents' tendencies when Warner was the starter. He has worked to become more consistent in the depth of his drops, a key to facilitating pass protection. And the staff has implemented drills designed to speed Leinart's decision-making.

Whisenhunt has shown he isn't afraid to make a change if warranted, so Leinart must make strides.

2. Where are the Cardinals most vulnerable from a depth standpoint?

Offensive line and cornerback. An injury to workhorse running back Edgerrin James might also prove devastating. The team has yet to identify an alternative to James.

Quarterback and receiver remain positions of strength. The team also thinks 2008 draft choices Calais Campbell and Kenny Iwebema will restore needed depth to the defensive line. Iwebema's power is impressive for a rookie.

3. Who will replace Bryant Johnson as the third receiver?

Steve Breaston, a fifth-round choice from Michigan in 2007, is the early leader. He was the star of the Cardinals' offseason workouts and minicamps. Rookie third-round choice Early Doucet provides competition, but rookie receivers usually aren't ready to produce right away.

"Steve Breaston is a second-year guy who can make the jump from reserve to potential in-the-mix guy," Haley said. "He has shown flashes and now it is just a matter of showing the consistency. Early Doucet is a young guy who has shown signs of potentially getting in the mix."

Market watch

Haley and offensive line coach Russ Grimm could be trending upward as potential head coaching candidates if the Cardinals continue their improvement under Whisenhunt.

Grimm nearly landed the Pittsburgh job in January 2007, only to have Mike Tomlin emerge as the Steelers' last-minute choice. Haley, a former Bill Parcells assistant in Dallas, turned down a chance to interview with the Miami Dolphins. He'll take over more of the play-calling duties under Whisenhunt.

Warner's career could be in decline if Leinart plays well enough to remain the starter. The former Super Bowl MVP is in the final year of his contract. He hasn't been able to land an extension, and his age could complicate efforts to secure the type of deal he has earned through his strong play.

Former cornerback Antrel Rolle might finally realize more of his potential now that the Cardinals have moved him to free safety, a position that might suit him better. Rolle has talent -- he was the eighth player chosen in the 2005 draft -- but so far he has shown only occasional flashes.

Newcomer to watch

First-round draft choice Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will play extensively as a rookie even if Rod Hood remains the starter heading into the season.

The proliferation of three- and four-receiver sets favored by NFL teams will give Rodgers-Cromartie a chance to employ his speed and overall ranginess right away. The rookie has the reach and closing speed to get his hands on the football.

Arizona lacks depth at corner behind Hood, Eric Green and Rodgers-Cromartie.

Observation deck

Arizona has the talent to contend in the NFC West. The Cardinals finished 8-8 last season even though they ran low on healthy bodies late in the year. Injuries might again be a key factor in determining whether the Cardinals break through this season. ...
In their second year under Whisenhunt, continuity on offense is a huge priority for the Cardinals. Coaches expect more consistency since players have known the system for a full season. Every offensive starter returns this season. All but tight end Leonard Pope appear entrenched in their positions. Ben Patrick is getting every opportunity to bump Pope from the lineup. ...
The offensive staff wants Edgerrin James to become more involved in the receiving game through screens and outlet passes. Arizona ranked fifth in passing yards last season even though James caught only 24 passes, by far his lowest output for a 16-game season. Continuity is particularly important for the screen game, which relies heavily on timing. ...
The Cardinals have become more efficient in coaching their quarterbacks, who no longer stand around during special-teams drills and other lulls. ...
Rolle's position change gives Arizona good depth at safety, where Adrian Wilson remains one of the game's more hard-nosed enforcers. ...
Outside linebacker Chike Okeafor leads the NFL in roughing-the-passer penalties since 2001. Coaches prevent players from hitting quarterbacks in practice, but Okeafor bends the rules in other ways. Whisenhunt wasn't pleased Sunday when Okeafor dragged down Doucet with a borderline horse-collar tackle in the open field. Okeafor also dislodged Levi Brown's helmet during the same practice. Remember, the Cardinals weren't even in pads. ...
Travis LaBoy's speed could help the pass rush. Signed as a free agent from Tennessee, LaBoy proved disruptive in pass-rush drills over the weekend.

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com