Current Roster Number: 8 (Justin Bethel, Cariel Brooks, Carrington Byndom, Asa Jackson, Patrick Peterson, Shaun Prater, Kevin White, Joel Wilkinson)
Ideal Roster Number: 4-6
Returning Starters: 1.5 (Peterson-1, Mathieu-.5)
Draft Need: Moderate to High Priority
Peterson is an elite NFL cornerback and widely regarded by many as the league’s premier cover corner, while Powers was serviceable on the opposite side of the field and contributed to the NFL’s eighth ranked passing defense last year.
The Cardinals rightfully tout Peterson as a franchise player, and pay him accordingly. The sixth year corner is set to make more than $13 million this season, and the team has him locked up under contract through 2020, when he will be 29 years old.
Anyone in an NFL organization would consider it a blessing to have a player like Peterson on the books, but the one drawback of Peterson’s presence is it forces the Cardinals to diversify their spending.
Arizona can’t afford to pay a second cornerback top dollar, and at the conclusion of last season, Powers elected to explore his options. At the moment, the eighth year veteran hasn’t signed a free agent deal with a new team, and in mid April, reports surfaced that Powers was meeting with the Cardinals brass about a possible return to the desert.
The Cardinals’ cornerback situation is more complicated than that of most teams, because of the versatility the team enjoys in the defensive backfield. Inside linebacker Deone Bucannon is excellent in coverage and converted to the position from safety, while defensive back Tyrann Mathieu is an all-around athlete in the secondary who fills multiple roles for Arizona.
We listed the Cardinals with 1.5 returning starters because while Powers is still exploring his options, Mathieu played enough repetitions as a cornerback last year to elicit at least partial consideration as a returning starter at the position.
In the Cardinals’ base defense, Mathieu aligns at safety, but the Cardinals play sub packages so frequently that Mathieu actually ends up taking the majority of his reps as a cornerback.
Defensive coordinator James Bettcher did an outstanding job of maximizing Mathieu last season, and his ability to play every position on the second and third levels of the defense gives the Cardinals an edge that most other teams simply don’t have.
Another factor complicating the Cardinals’ cornerback depth is the money the team has tied up in special teams warrior Justin Bethel. Steve Keim and Bruce Arians have made it clear that the team believes Bethel can become an NFL starter as a cornerback, but Bethel is coming off of offseason surgery that could take away valuable time for skill development.
Nevertheless, Keim and Arians have a strong history of successfully evaluating their personnel, and if they believe Bethel has the athleticism and instincts to start over the course of a full 16-game season, it’s reasonable to trust their judgement because the sample size we have of watching Bethel as a cornerback is still relatively small.
With Bethel’s contract worth north of $3 million this season and upwards of $5 million in 2017 and 2018, the Cardinals don’t have much wiggle room to pay another cornerback at a starter’s salary.
That’s where things get tricky. Arizona can try to bring an aging Powers back if he doesn’t land a better option, or it can add depth through the draft. Ultimately, the healthy return of Mathieu is essential for the Cardinals to maintain stability in the secondary, because no player is more of a schematic X-factor.
Behind Peterson, Bethel and Mathieu (regardless of if he’s listed as a safety, he needs to be in the conversation when discussing Cardinals’ cornerbacks), the team has five other players on its roster.
Cariel Brooks played in three games for Arizona last season, while Carrington Byndom saw time in three games during the team’s 2014 campaign. Of the remaining three players, Shaun Prater, Kevin White and Joel Wilkinson, only Prater has experience in an NFL game.
The Cardinals are faced with an interesting decision as to how to address the team’s cornerback depth. Unless Arizona believes a player like Brooks or Prater will pan out as a dependable backup, the Cardinals will likely need to add one more piece at cornerback prior to the season.
Arizona could elect to take a cornerback in the draft, but we think if Keim does decide to draft a defensive back in an early round, he might be better off selecting a safety because of how frequently the team uses Mathieu as a cornerback.
Barring a substantial surprise, the team knows the type of production it will get out of Peterson and Mathieu, even with Mathieu returning from injury and Peterson returning from an offseason surgery. Arizona has also expressed financial confidence in Bethel, but the team could still make an effort to create competition at the position by adding a cornerback early.
With so many factors playing into the Cardinals’ depth at cornerback, the team has a variety of options to explore as it heads into the draft.