Ball is back in Leinart's hand

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Kurt Warner's(notes) retirement hit the Arizona Cardinals' front office like a blindside shot to the chest, not unlike the one the future Hall of Fame quarterback took from New Orleans Saints defensive end Bobby McCray(notes) earlier this month in what turned out to be the final game of his 12-year career.

Clearly, the departure of the franchise's pivotal player with a year remaining on the lucrative deal he signed last year was not part of the Cardinals' master plan. However, it's not likely the organization will panic in the wake of Friday's announcement.

After all, it's possible the team will find its quarterback of the future in the first round of the NFL draft – specifically, the 2006 draft.

In his fifth NFL season, former Heisman Trophy winner and 10th overall pick Matt Leinart(notes) will likely get another chance to be The Man in Arizona which, before Warner's unlikely career revival, was the plan all along.

Despite some rocky performances and what his bosses believed to be a lack of maturity and commitment earlier in his career, Leinart has impressed them while backing up Warner for the past two seasons, and he'll almost certainly be the presumed starter going into the 2010 campaign.

While it's theoretically possible the Cards could listen to prospective trade proposals involving the Eagles' Donovan McNabb(notes), who makes his offseason home in the Phoenix area, or consider acquiring another accomplished veteran, Leinart looks like a near-lock to start next season.

The franchise has invested enough time and money in Leinart that, at this point, it's the logical move. Also, as his friend, college rival and fellow '06 draftee, Vince Young(notes), showed in Tennessee last season, new-found maturity and a second chance can go a long way toward resuscitating the career of a young, talented passer.

Further, while just one of Leinart's 17 career starts has come in the past two seasons, it's not as though he was languishing in coach Ken Whisenhunt's doghouse. Rather, the thinking in the organization is that Warner's high level of play made the notion of starting Leinart a moot one, and that the former USC star's struggles have been overblown because of it.

Leinart and Young in Week 12.
(Jim Brown/US Presswire)

To be sure, there have been times when Leinart has looked shaky in relief of Warner, as in the team's meaningless 33-7 defeat in its regular-season finale against the Green Bay Packers. However, Leinart was impressive in his lone start of '09, completing 21 of 31 passes for 220 yards in a last-second road defeat to Young and the Titans in late November.

Most recently, after Warner was temporarily knocked out by McCray's hit in Arizona's divisional-round playoff defeat to the Saints, Leinart looked sharp in driving the Cards into field-goal range in the final minutes of the first half.

The Cardinals believe that, while their offense might not be as explosive or prolific with Leinart at the helm, the ingredients are there for him to operate a more balanced attack in a successful fashion. Halfback Beanie Wells(notes), the team's top draft pick in '09, came on at the end of his rookie season and is expected to be the team's starter in 2010.

Arizona's aerial attack should remain strong given the presence of Larry Fitzgerald(notes), perhaps the NFL's top wideout. There's also a decent chance that the team's other receiver with Pro Bowl pedigree, Anquan Boldin(notes), will return for the final year of his contract.

Long unhappy with his deal, Boldin has nonetheless played hard and remained a positive force in the locker room throughout the past year, and he recently said he would not attempt to force a trade this offseason. Last spring the Cards fielded offers for Boldin from several teams but rejected all of them, including one that would have netted Arizona a second-round draft pick. The price is not likely to go up in the coming months, meaning the Cardinals could well decide to milk one more year of Boldin's services before letting him depart as a free agent.

Two key defensive players are also unhappy with their current contracts: One, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett(notes), has two years remaining on his deal and will likely be offered a multi-year extension (or, when push comes to shove, franchised). The other, inside linebacker Karlos Dansby(notes), could leave via free agency given the relatively weak crop of unrestricted free agents to be and a prohibitive salary should the team choose to tag him.

Still, the Cardinals have enough talent to be considered favorites to win a third consecutive NFC West title, even in the wake of Warner's departure. With Leinart and third-stringer Brian St. Pierre(notes) on the roster, Arizona would likely look to draft a quarterback in April.

With the Cardinals set to pick 26th, it's unlikely they'd make a play to move up for Oklahoma's Sam Bradford or another quarterback (like Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen) who looks to be a top-10 selection. It's much more plausible that Arizona would look to grab a less-decorated passer later in the draft – someone such as Cincinnati's Tony Pike or Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour.

Ideally, Arizona would be drafting a potential backup of the future. That's the plan, anyway.

For just as they did in 2006, the year before Whisenhunt arrived, the Cardinals are looking to Leinart to lead them into the next decade.