"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: Brooks: 25, Jackson 26
Experience: Brooks: 2nd NFL season, Jackson; 5th NFL season
Contract status: Brooks: 2016-$525,000, Jackson: 2016-$600,000
2015 season in review: Brooks began the 2015 season in Cardinals' training camp and lasted through preseason until the final roster cuts. Arizona elected to keep Brooks on the team's practice squad, and in the middle of the season, the Cardinals elevated Brooks to the active roster where he made his NFL debut and played in three games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Jackson has spent each of the last four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, but after playing in four regular season games in 2015 and recording just one tackle, he didn't end the season on the team's active roster. This allowed the Cardinals to sign Jackson this offseason to a "futures" contract, which is a one-year deal at the league minimum based on a player's service time.
Projected roster status: Entering this week, both Brooks and Jackson had reason to be optimistic about their respective opportunities to crack the Cardinals' active roster. Arizona head coach Bruce Arians said during OTAs that Brooks was close to making the active roster last season, and he enjoyed a strong spring with the organization. Jackson, meanwhile, could take comfort in the fact Arizona lost cornerback Jerraud Powers to free agency and hadn't moved to replace him with another veteran. Unfortunately for the pair, general manager Steve Keim moved to sign veteran corner Mike Jenkins and scheduled a meeting with free agent Chris Culliver. While this doesn't rule out the possibility of either player making the roster, it makes the task in front of them more difficult. We think Brooks has the better opportunity of the two players to end preseason camp as a member of the Arizona's 53-man roster, and heading into camp, we're willing to say Brooks has about a 50/50 chance of making the team.
Projected depth chart status: The Cardinals return just one of their two starters at cornerback in Patrick Peterson, but with the money the team has committed to special teams ace Justin Bethel, it's likely Bethel slides into the spot opposite Peterson. It's completely feasible for a player like Brooks to make the team as Arizona's third cornerback, especially if he outperforms both Jenkins and third round draft pick Brandon Williams in camp, but we think it's more likely Brooks would serve as the team's fourth cornerback. So much of the Cardinals' cornerback depth depends on how quickly Williams takes to the team's scheme in camp, but Arians indicated the Cardinals will use him in situations that won't require much thinking beyond knowing how to lock a receiver down in press-man coverage.
Position group analysis: Cornerback is the most complicated position group of any for the Cardinals heading into training camp because aside from Peterson and Bethel, there are nine players competing for what likely amounts to two roster spots. In his first three seasons as head coach, Arians hasn't kept more than four cornerbacks active on the roster, in part because safety Tyrann Mathieu plays so many of his repetitions as a slot corner. With the additions of safety Tyvon Branch, Jenkins and Williams, Arizona now has a handful of players aside from Mathieu who have experience defending against slot receivers. Brooks projects as more of an outside cornerback, whereas Jackson played primarily in the slot during his four seasons in Baltimore, so based on the numbers and experience ahead of him, it seems as though Jackson would have a tougher time making the team.
Moving forward: Brooks has an advantage over Jackson of having an extra season of familiarity within the Cardinals' defensive system, but neither player can take much for granted as both signed futures contracts simply to have a shot at competing for a roster spot. Much like undrafted free agents, players on futures contracts can't focus on long term plans and outcomes and must instead set short term goals geared toward training camp. Once a player makes a team, goals like playing time and earning starts become more realistic, but for now, the Cardinals have signed these players because of their potential, not because of what they've already accomplished.
Key skill: Differentiation
It goes without saying younger and inexperienced players have to do more to catch an NFL coach's eye, and that's exactly how Brooks and Jackson can figure out a way to earn a roster spot. Both players will spend training camp focusing on differentiating themselves from the other cornerbacks on the roster in hopes of showcasing a skill or ability a coaching staff views as invaluable, or perhaps indispensable, when it works on crafting the roster.
Ways in which the pair can stand out to Arians and his staff are by becoming the best slot corner, the best press corner, or the best overall man-to-man corner of the players competing for a job. While it's unlikely Brooks or Jackson would ever outshine established players like Peterson or Mathieu in terms of their man coverage abilities, if Brooks proves he's better at shutting down outside receivers than Bethel or Williams, he'll have a much better chance of sticking with the team.
Overall value: Players with futures contracts provide an excellent measuring stick for organizations to compare with their established veterans and their undrafted free agents. Futures contract players are typically relatively unproven in regular season play, but they do have NFL camp and often practice squad experience under their belts which qualifies as important time spent in the professional ranks. If an undrafted free agent is outperforming players like Brooks and Jackson, that undrafted free agent has a better chance of sticking around. Furthermore, if a futures contract player is outperforming a veteran like Jenkins, it might be time for an organization to think about prioritizing the young talent. Because futures contract players sign minimum contracts, they don't require much of a financial commitment for NFL franchises, so much like undrafted free agents, any production they ultimately provide comes at a cheap cost.