"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Players: Jaron Brown, J.J. Nelson
Age: Brown: 26, Nelson: 24
Experience: Brown: 4th season, Nelson: 2nd season
Contract status: Brown: 2016-$1,671,000, Nelson: 2016-$577,450, 2017-$667,450, 2018-$757,450
2015 season quick review: During one of quarterback Carson Palmer's best NFL seasons, the Arizona Cardinals' offense took flight en route to a 13-3 record. Even though Palmer helped veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and second-year player John Brown to 1,000-yard receiving seasons, the Cardinals didn't do a great job of spreading the wealth to the bottom of the depth chart. The team's No. 4 wide receiver, Brown, caught just 11 passes which represented a large drop off from the 22 passes he caught in 2014 while the team's No. 5 target, Nelson, also nabbed just 11 receptions. Nelson was the more effective of the pair as the Cardinals used him almost exclusively as a deep threat who could give John Brown a breather, as Nelson averaged 27.2 yards per reception last year. Though neither player developed a significant role in the team's 2015 offense, both receivers are back with the club this year with the hopes of improving on their production.
Projected roster status: It would come as a mild surprise if either Brown or Nelson didn't make the final roster, even though neither player caught more than 11 passes last year. The Cardinals' coaching staff spoke highly of the receiving corps throughout the season, and at one point, offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said nearly every receiver on the roster could be a No. 1 or No. 2 option on other teams around the league. Nevertheless, if the Cardinals are impressed by an undrafted free agent and feel the need to make a cut, it would likely be Nelson, not Brown, who ends up making the roster because his contract is smaller and he gives the team a better deep threat.
Projected depth chart status: Regardless of how the battle for playing time between Michael Floyd and John Brown shakes out, both players will receive a ton of reps this season and the pair will likely be on the field together for a considerable amount of time, especially when the team uses three-wide receiver sets. Because of that, it's hard to imagine larger roles for Jaron Brown and Nelson, unless one of the Cardinals' top three receivers suffers an injury. With the way Arizona likes to incorporate its tight ends and backs into the passing game, there are only so many passes to go around, which means it will be incredibly difficult for Brown or Nelson to move up from the No. 4 and No. 5 spots on the team's depth chart.
Position group analysis: Even though Brown and Nelson will have a tough time earning considerable playing time this season, the Cardinals are in an interesting position moving forward and they may take extended looks at both players to see if either merits consideration as a No. 3 receiver in the near future. If Brown and or Nelson does make the most of the playing time they do get this season and haul in 25 to 30 passes, then the organization can feel more confident moving forward as Fitzgerald enters the final stages of his career and Floyd finishes out his rookie contract. If Fitzgerald and Floyd both move on from the franchise within the next two seasons, then Brown and Nelson could have opportunities to climb up the depth chart and make more of an impact than they have previously.
Moving forward: Of the two receivers who manned the bottom of the depth chart for the Cardinals last year, it's Nelson who has better potential for a long term future within the organization. At just 24 years old (two years younger than Brown, Brown and Floyd), Nelson is still developing and learning technical skills that will help him become a more complete receiver. Though Jaron Brown posted a 22-catch season in 2014, his step backward in production last year and his expiring contract makes him the more expendable player if the Cardinals do choose to go a different direction and revamp their receiving corps. Because Nelson is younger and under contract through the 2018 season, the organization is likely more willing to prioritize Nelson's future, but because Brown has experience within the team's offense, we won't rule out the possibility of him resigning next offseason, especially if the team suffers a loss at the top of the unit.
Key skill: Chemistry with Palmer
While chemistry may seem like an obvious choice of a skill for any quarterback-receiver tandem to have, it's especially critical for players like Brown and Nelson who will spend fall camp fending off undrafted free agents from coming in and stealing a roster spot. The time Brown and Nelson have spent over the last few seasons with Palmer is a critical advantage for both players, and it can make or break an organization's decision to keep players on the roster.
If an undrafted free agent like Amir Carlisle or Chris Hubert comes into camp and spends countless hours developing a relationship with Palmer or even backup Drew Stanton, the Cardinals may be forced to choose to keep a receiver their quarterbacks prefer to work with over a veteran presence.
One of the factors working in favor of players like Brown and Nelson is their familiarity with offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin's system and the manner in which Palmer executes within the system. If Palmer likes his out routes to break at a certain point or wants receivers to adjust the angles of their routes when they see particular coverages, Brown and Nelson already have a leg up on their positional counterparts because of the experience they have practicing with the Cardinals.
The chemistry Brown and Nelson have with their quarterback can't be overlooked in fall camp, especially for a player like Nelson with a demonstrated ability to catch the deep ball the Cardinals love throwing.
Overall value: Measuring the overall value of players rounding out the depth chart as opposed to starters isn't as important because teams rarely commit significant amounts of money to players who won't end up starting. With that said, the one-year deal the Cardinals extended Brown to bring him back in 2016 represents the 75th largest cap hit of any NFL receiver. Though that may not seem like a considerable cap hit, but when you factor in 32 teams with five to six wide receivers on each roster, Brown's contract suggests his production should be on par with most No. 3 receivers around the league. So while it will be hard for the Cardinals to reap the benefits of Brown's presence unless he catches between 30 and 40 passes, they can and should recognize value in Nelson's contract, which is a rookie deal that pays him a nominal amount of money. If Nelson can bring the same type of production to the fold this season, then the Cardinals will benefit from the overall value his contract provides the franchise.