Cardinals in depth: Will they find a QB to make them a contender?
Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt never asked, though he wished amid last season's 5-11 disaster that star quarterback Kurt Warner was still doing the quick step inside Arizona's pocket instead of on "Dancing with the Stars.''
"Kurt and I talked last year, but we never talked about him coming back. Now I'm sure Larry (Fitzgerald) may have talked to Kurt about coming back,'' Whisenhunt said, referencing his five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver.
"But I knew Kurt: When he said he was done -- he was done.''
Unfortunately, the 2010 Cardinals were also done the moment Warner retired in January, 2010 after leading Arizona to back-to-back postseason appearances, including a wrenching, last-minute Super Bowl XLIII loss to Pittsburgh.
"Oh yeah, Larry asked me all the time,'' NFL Network analyst Warner laughs from his Arizona home.
"That was the one good thing -- not that coach didn't want me to come back -- and he joked here and there. But coach and the organization respect me enough that they wouldn't try to get me to do something like that because they knew I made the decision for the right reasons.
"I'm sure there were moments where they were like, 'Man, I wish we had Kurt back to help us through this.'... I had a number of guys early on saying, 'Hey, we're coming over to the house.' Another guy said, 'I'm blaming this season on you.'
"It was all in good fun.''
Consider five key questions the 2011 Cardinals must answer to return to championship contention starting with finding their Warner successor:
1. Who's the No. 1 quarterback target?
General manager Rod Graves says the Cardinals will aggressively pursue trades and free agency when league business re-opens in a bid to land the top-level passer they lacked with scatter-armed Derek Anderson, Max Hall, John Skelton and Richard Bartel.
"I learned from last year, it's good to get a quarterback that you know you can have who can play for a while,'' Whisenhunt said.
"We weren't strong enough as a team to compensate for not having the level of play at quarterback we'd had before ... Hopefully, we'll get it fixed."
Arizona's checkdown options include:
-- Kevin Kolb. At 26, the Texas native would be the ideal get for a franchise looking to recover from its Matt Leinart mistake as the 10th selection in 2006. The cost estimated by NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly is a 2012 first- and second rounder for a fifth-year quarterback with seven career starts.
Heck, the Atlanta Falcons surrendered five draft picks, including a 2012 first-rounder, to move up 21 spots in the draft for Alabama wideout Julio Jones.
"When you look at the guys out there and you're trying to find the best answer for the greatest value and the longest period of time, it's got to be Kevin Kolb,'' Warner said.
"He's got the big upside from the standpoint that he's young. He's just coming into his own. You've actually seen him play. ... And he's going to give you the possibility of a franchise quarterback for 10 years.''
Question is, will normally conservative owner Bill Bidwill dig that deep to get Whisenhunt the best quarterback available in the post-lockout market? One reason to think so is that with Bidwill and his son, Michael the team president extending the contracts of Graves and Whisenhunt through 2013, Kolb would represent a franchise quarterback to grow around.
-- Carson Palmer: A reunion with Palmer's former Southern California coach Pete Carroll in Seattle seems a more likely NFC West destination for the Cincinnati Bengals veteran. Palmer wants out of Cincinnati and has threatened to retire as an alternative. Palmer figures to come at an even steeper price than Kolb considering he'd likely cost a 2012 first-round pick AND his $11.5-million salary due this season. Plus, Palmer, 31, has thrown 33 interceptions the last two seasons.
"The best middle-ground is Carson Palmer,'' Warner said. "He's a gifted player who has all the tangibles you want in a prototypical quarterback. He's got plenty left in the tank -- still young enough that he can play and play well. He's built for that system."
-- Marc Bulger: Warner's former successor in St. Louis would seem a natural to succeed him in the desert. But Bulger didn't throw a pass last season as Joe Flacco's Baltimore Ravens backup.
"I look at Marc as a stopgap-type guy with a couple of years left,'' Warner said. "And the fact he hasn't started in a couple of years, there's some questions there about what exactly are you getting?''
-- Matt Hasselbeck: If Palmer is in as Carroll's Seahawks quarterback, that could leave Hasselbeck available as a proven winner who led Seattle to Super Bowl XL.
"He's a great leader who can still play," Warner said.
"And if you get him away from Seattle, it shifts the power in that division. Because that division has really been built around the quarterback the last five, six years. The team that has the best quarterback wins the division."
Bottom line? The Cardinals have to find a sharp passer capable of getting the ball consistently to Fitzgerald whose four-year, $40-million contract expires after the 2011 season.
2. Can fourth-round rookie outside linebacker Sam Acho rejuvenate the pass rush?
Arizona's pass rush faded in 2010 with aging Joey Porter and Clark Haggans. A 29th-ranked defense managed 33 sacks with Porter and Haggans combining for 10. Porter and Haggans are both 34.
That opens the door for former Texas defensive end Acho as a smart, high-motor playmaker with 19 sacks the past two seasons. Acho played linebacker his first two seasons at Texas.
Given tighter coverage by rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson and fourth-year corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Acho could have an immediate impact at outside linebacker in tandem with defensive line talents Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and DT Dan Williams, who will benefit from an extra beat to get to opposing passers.
3. Who's the odd man out in an over-crowded backfield?
Tim Hightower's contract is up and he's been prone to fumbling. Chris "Beanie'' Wells has not lived up to 2009 first-round expectations, so Arizona selected the highest-rated player on its board, Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams, with the 38th overall choice.
There is also third-down back LaRod Stephens-Howling.
Williams ran for 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2009 before a hamstring strain limited his 2010 production. He's an explosive, physical runner capable of taking any carry the distance.
"This guy's a playmaker,'' Warner said. "They continue to feel like, 'We haven't solved our quarterback issue. We have to be able to run the football.' And here's a guy with the ability to be more dynamic.
"I'm sure the fumble problems Tim and Beanie had weighed in it. But it's more, 'We have to run the football and here's a dynamic player who can help us do that.'''
4. Can a porous offensive line tighten up?
For all the talk about being a quarterback away from returning to the postseason -- one of the biggest culprits behind last season's crash was what went down up front.
One of the big reasons why none of the four quarterbacks who took snaps enjoyed consistent success was a sagging line that surrendered 50 sacks and struggled to open holes in the run game.
Nine-time Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca retired May 10. Eighth-year backup Rex Hadnot will likely replace Faneca. Right guard Deuce Lutui and center Lyle Sendlein are must-sign free agents. Arizona will likely be forced to dip into the free-agent pool to further bolster their interior line depth.
Lastly, Levi Brown struggled in last season's transition from right to left tackle.
"The key is try to build an identity -- what are you going to be as a football team? Then, find the right guys who can help you build that,'' Warner said.
5. -- Will Peterson have a Defensive Rookie of the Year impact?
Winning the NFC West starts by stopping St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Peterson was deemed the best player on some draft boards. The 6-2, 222-pound cornerback's physical presence as a press-man and strong tackler should complement Rodgers-Cromartie, who struggled last season after a 2009 Pro Bowl campaign.
"To have two guys on the outside who have the ability to be shut-down corners allows Adrian Wilson to roam and blitz more and also allows Kerry Rhodes to be more of a playmaker,'' Warner said.
Peterson provides a strong matchup answer against big, physical receivers such as Seattle's Mike Williams and San Francisco's Michael Crabtree along with providing the Cardinals an added dimension as an explosive kick returner.