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On Tuesday, we were at Coconino High School in Flagstaff, Ariz., for the Cardinals' only night practice of training camp. The evening couldn't have been more perfect: mild temperatures, a slight breeze and mountains and pine trees rising majestically to form a beatific backdrop.
The stands were nearly filled to capacity for the two-hour workout, which focused heavily on special teams and situational football. Much of the evening belonged to the defense, which consistently pressured the pocket and disrupted the offense's passing game.
1. Kevin Kolb has been a godsend. The former Eagles second-round pick has brought life and vigor back to an offense that was beaten down by the poor play of last year's signal-callers. Teammates talk about his passion for the game, his desire to be great, and his willingness to challenge them to be better.
Outside of coach Ken Whisenhunt, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald might be happier than anyone about the trade that brought Kolb to town. The two worked out together for a week in the offseason and felt an instant chemistry. Now Fitzgerald not only has a coach who'll scheme to get him the ball, but a quarterback who can deliver it. But is it enough for Fitzgerald to stick around beyond 2011?
His contract expires at the end of the season, but the sides are discussing a new deal that would keep him around for at least another six years. Fitzgerald, who has a "no franchise" clause in his current deal, has put a self-imposed deadline of Sept. 4 -- the final day of the preseason -- for getting something done. After that, he says he won't discuss an extension until after the season.
How close are the sides?
"Closer than we were last week," Fitzgerald said.
How far are they from reaching an agreement?
"Not too far away," he added.
My gut feeling: An extension will be finalized before Fitzgerald's stated deadline.
2. The Cardinals may have more cornerback depth than at any point in Whisenhunt's five seasons. Greg Toler and A.J. Jefferson are running with the first team, and rookie Patrick Peterson -- the fifth pick overall in April's draft -- and solid veteran Richard Marshall are lining up with the second unit.
"Do we have the marquee guy at that position? Not right now," says new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. "But I've got four solid guys who I can rotate in without hesitation. So if one guy is having a bad day, then he can come out and someone else can go in. They're all competing and pushing each other. I like the depth from one to four."
Whisenhunt believes strongly that rookies should earn their way, which is why Peterson, whom some considered the best player in the draft, has yet to crack the starting lineup. For all of his physical skills, the former LSU star has a lot to learn in Horton's 3-4 scheme and the Cardinals want to be careful not to overwhelm him.
"This defense is not easy for a rookie to play, so what I've got to do is have him be a sponge and soak it up, but when push comes to shove when he gets in a game I've got to pull back," Horton says. "I can't expect him to know the nuances of the defense. I've got to go, 'OK, he's a natural, talented athlete. Let him play.' I'm not saying Deion (Sanders-like), but that's going to be my thought: Give him something very simple; give him that man, go cover that man, and let him go play football."
Horton says it's possible to have a scheme within the scheme when it comes to Peterson. "I can control the calls," Horton says. "There will be times when he'll mess up; he did it tonight. There'll be a learning curve. But that's all young players. Cam Newton is going to mess up. Sam Bradford messed up. Rookies just do. The unfortunate thing at that position is that it's always involving points or big chunks of yardage. So we've got to be careful with him."
3. Second-year defensive tackle Dan Williams was among the players hurt by the lockout. Williams, the team's first-round pick out of Tennessee last year, struggled with his weight as a rookie and clearly did not report to camp in shape this year. For the Cardinals' defense to be at its best, it needs a noseguard who can control the line of scrimmage and occupy blockers. Williams, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 327 pounds, clearly has the physical ability. The question is: Does he have the discipline and desire necessary to reach his potential? If the answer is no, the coaching staff has been impressed with rookie sixth-round draft pick David Carter. The 6-5, 300-pounder Carter has not only the size to be effective on the interior, but also the conditioning.
Calais Campbell, defensive end. The Cardinals are hopeful that this is the year the fourth-year pro breaks out and becomes a dominant player. He has the size (6-foot-8, 300) and athleticism to be a presence, and with opponents likely to pay more attention to Pro Bowler Darnell Dockett on the opposite end, Campbell will get a lot of one-on-one looks. If he raises his game after managing only 60 tackles and six sacks in 2010, the Cardinals' defense will have a much smoother road to redemption.
Ryan Williams, running back. The rookie second-round pick from Virginia Tech has turned heads with his speed, balance and cutting ability. Seemingly once each practice he makes a run or move that causes teammates to look at each other with arched eyebrows. The Cardinals traded veteran Tim Hightower to Washington presumably because they believe Williams is capable of backing up Beanie Wells.
A key to Williams' playing time could be how quickly he excels in pass protection. Running backs in Arizona's sub packages have to be spot on reading blitzes and knowing where the pressure is coming from. The staff says Williams asks all the right questions and has the ability -- and desire -- to fill that role.
Whisenhunt likes the fact that the Cardinals play all but one game on Sunday afternoon because it will allow them to be consistent in their approach from week to week. Beyond that, the schedule sets up well for Arizona.
They open with games vs. Carolina (which has a new coach and could be breaking in a rookie quarterback), at Washington (which has quarterback issues) and at Seattle (which has a new offensive coordinator, quarterback and No. 1 wideout). It's not inconceivable they could start 3-0 before facing the Giants at home and the Vikings on the road.
Perhaps more noteworthy is that four of the Cardinals' final five games are at home, including divisional games against San Francisco and Seattle. Add it all up and Arizona should be in the hunt for a third NFC West title in four years.