"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.
Age: Clemons: 30, Zimmerman: 23
Experience: Clemons: 8th season, Zimmerman: 1st season
Contract status: Clemons: 2016-$885,000, Zimmerman: $450,000
2015 season quick review: Clemons began the 2015 season on the Cardinals' roster after joining the organization in December of 2014. The veteran safety came to Arizona after starting all 16 games for the Miami Dolphins in both 2012 and 2013, but has struggled to stay healthy during his tenure with the Cardinals. Clemons started last season as a role player and a special teams asset, but after an injury in October, he was released with just three tackles to his name. The Clemson product did return to the organization in December after Tyrann Mathieu's injury, but his game action remained limited. As for Zimmerman, he enjoyed tryouts with the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns last year, and ultimately wound up on the Browns' practice squad after being signed in early October.
Projected roster status: With the selection of Marqui Christian in the fifth round of the NFL Draft, the Cardinals made Clemons' chances of cracking the active roster much more difficult heading into the 2016 season. Last season, Arizona kept eight defensive backs on the roster, and with the addition of three draft picks including Christian, Clemons may be the odd man out when the final roster spots are solidified. Clemons is just two years removed from serving as a full-time starter in the NFL, but in two seasons with the Cardinals, he hasn't been able to consistently break into the rotation. Clemons can help his cause if he performs well on special teams this camp, and if the franchise decides that Christian's learning curve is steep and would prefer to keep him on the practice squad. Zimmerman, meanwhile, has already been released and re-signed from the Cardinals' roster this offseason and will need an outstanding camp to keep him on the coaching staff's radar. Zimmerman is the type of player who could see extended run in preseason games if the Cardinals have a few injuries in the secondary, but with the team likely keeping eight or nine defensive backs, it's a numbers game that doesn't look like it's going to work in Zimmerman's favor.
Projected depth chart status: If either Clemons or Zimmerman makes the 53-man roster (It's highly unlikely both players will make it), they will almost assuredly be at the bottom of the depth chart behind the likes of Tony Jefferson, Tyvon Branch and D.J. Swearinger. The last few defensive backs who round out the roster are often considered critical special teams players, so special teams units are likely where Clemons or Zimmerman could find the majority of their playing time.
Position group analysis: After losing Rashad Johnson to free agency this offseason, the Cardinals recovered quite nicely with the addition of Branch who spent last season as a backup in Kansas City. So much of Arizona's success in the secondary depends on the health of Mathieu, who could be ready to play by the beginning of the season but could need more time to nurse back to fall strength. With Mathieu and Branch, the Cardinals have a pair of safeties who can slide down and play man coverage, and the return of Jefferson affords Arizona another player with a solid knowledge of the team's defensive scheme and principles. If Swearinger plays up to the capabilities he showed late last season and Christian slowly develops, Arizona may not slide as far as many analysts believe they will in pass defense. The challenge for a player like Clemons or Zimmerman is finding a niche within this group and highlighting a skill they possess the Cardinals believe could be a great asset in certain sub-package situations.
Moving forward: As Clemons' NFL career winds down, it's unlikely any team in the league would view him as more than a one-year option at this point unless he enjoys a surprising Renaissance-type of season. The Cardinals offered him under $1 million to return whereas the team tendered Swearinger a $1.6 million offer for the 2016 season, which helped clarify which player the organization is prioritizing. Zimmerman's best chance to remain on the team's radar through the future is to enjoy a strong fall camp and land on the team's practice squad, as it's unlikely his future with the organization is clear beyond August.
Key skill: Special teams play
It becomes almost repetitive to emphasize this for players who have just a small glimmer of hope to make the roster, but special teams play is the most important function backups in the secondary can serve for a team. Clemons has made his mark on special teams over the last two seasons with Arizona, and Zimmerman has appeared outwardly toward the media as someone who is willing to do whatever a team asks of him to remain on the roster.
The Cardinals attempted to address some of their special teams coverage issues with the additions of Christian, third round pick Brandon Williams and sixth round selection Harlan Miller through the draft, which will make it tougher for Clemons or Zimmerman to lock down a roster spot. However, the draft choices could also spur a heated competition, and many franchises have been known to keep a player or two active simply for their special teams contributions. If Clemons or Zimmerman can outshine players like Christian and Miller, Arizona's final decisions regarding personnel will become much more difficult.
Overall value: Neither Clemons or Zimmerman is set to make upward of $900,000 this season if they end up making the roster, their respective cap hits are relatively small and likely indicative of the type of production and contributions they would bring to the Cardinals. As long as players at the bottom of the depth chart are commanding under $1 million, it's difficult to characterize the overall value they bring to an organization. One important factor in keeping players who do make minimal, but important contributions on special teams and in sub-packages is that it allows teams like the Cardinals to pay stars like Patrick Peterson their market value which in turn helps keep players like Peterson with the organization for an extended period of time.