"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: Jenkins: 31, Williams: 23
Experience: Jenkins: 9th NFL season, Williams: Rookie season
Contract status: Jenkins: Terms undisclosed, Williams: 2016-$618,173, 2017-$731,673, 2018-$824,173, 2019-$908,676
2015 season quick review: Jenkins spent the 2015 season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the ninth year NFL veteran played in 14 games and made five starts for Lovie Smith's squad. Jenkins only made 17 tackles, but did register five passes defended a season after missing almost the entire year with a pectoral injury. Aside from the 2014 season, Jenkins has played in at least 12 games in each year of his career, so though it may look like he has slowed down statistically, there could be plenty more left in the tank for Jenkins. Williams finished the 2015 season and his collegiate career at Texas A&M last year, where he played his first full season as a cornerback. A former 5-star running back prospect out of high school, Williams didn't transition to cornerback until last summer and earned roles as a starter and as a team captain for the Aggies. The 6-foot tall Williams registered 37 tackles, but did not record an interception in his first season on defense.
Projected roster status: If one were to take a quick pass at the Cardinals' roster and guess which of the 11 corners would end up on the team's active roster, both Williams and Jenkins would probably join the likes of Patrick Peterson and Justin Bethel as Arizona's four cornerbacks. Still, the Cardinals' cornerback situation is complicated, and even a veteran like Jenkins may have a difficult time cracking the team. It's unlikely Arizona would hold a third round draft pick like Williams off the team's final roster, but it's important to consider the Cardinals are in "win now" mode and Williams just doesn't have much experience as a cornerback. We could envision a scenario where the Cardinals actually keep five cornerbacks including both Jenkins and Williams, but leave Williams inactive on game days early on in the season as he grows more acquainted with his position. Right now, we think both Jenkins and Williams will ultimately end up with the Cardinals for the team's season opener against New England, but players like Cariel Brooks and Asa Jackson will bring plenty of competition to the position battle.
Projected depth chart status: If all goes according to plan for the Cardinals, Williams could actually serve as the team's nickel cornerback in 2016 while Jenkins serves as a role player who can line up against both outside and slot receivers. When the Cardinals drafted Williams, general manager Steve Keim said the team was high on Williams' athletic ability, and head coach Bruce Arians indicated it wouldn't take long for an athlete of his nature to transition into a successful press-man corner in the NFL. If this holds true, Arizona could start either Jenkins or Bethel opposite Peterson, while Williams focuses on playing in the slot. If Williams isn't quite prepared, Bethel could start opposite Peterson while Jenkins plays in the slot. Arizona will also take sixth round draft pick Harlan Miller into consideration when crafting the depth chart, and we think Miller may be better suited than Williams to see playing time early on in 2016 despite Williams having the higher ceiling of the two draft picks. If Arizona doesn't sign any additional cornerbacks, though, we view Williams and Jenkins as the favorites to complete the Cardinals' depth chart behind Peterson and Bethel.
Position group analysis: As we've mentioned, there's no place on the Cardinals' roster with more competition than cornerback. Even though Arizona lost Jerraud Powers, the team has a number of options who will factor into final roster discussions. In the spring, Arians mentioned Brooks as a player who nearly made the team last season and was enjoying a solid spring, and in post-draft comments, the Cardinals' head coach appeared high on both Williams and Miller. Though the team is somewhat inexperienced at corner, the move to sign Jenkins was still a surprise to us because the Cardinals' roster is already crowded at cornerback. Furthermore, Arizona is reportedly expected to meet with veteran free agent Chris Culliver this week, and bringing in another veteran would almost assuredly mean either Williams or Miller doesn't start the season on the Cardinals' roster, which would probably come as a surprise for the draft picks. Though much is uncertain, what we do know is that the competition at corner won't be decided until the very end of fall camp, as the Cardinals will take their time determining the best course of action.
Moving forward: Though the terms of Jenkins' contract remain undisclosed, we think it's highly unlikely the veteran corner signed anything more than a two-year contract, and much more probable Jenkins signed a one-year, incentive-based deal. Jenkins is likely viewed by the organization as a stopgap type of player who possesses something the Cardinals lack in corners outside of Peterson: experience. In fact, Jenkins is the only corner on the Cardinals' roster aside from Peterson with more than 10 career starts to his name, so he could play a valuable role in helping the team transition away from Powers. Williams, on the other hand, is a player who should factor greatly into the Cardinals' long term plans. Some experts believed it was a stretch to take Williams in the third round, but the Cardinals' decision to lock in that selection suggests they see a real future for Williams within their organization, as the team would love to ultimately depend on a draft pick to play opposite of Peterson. If Williams pans out as a strong cover corner within his first two years in the league, it bodes well for Arizona, but it's important to remember there is plenty of risk in drafting a player with such insignificant experience. The Cardinals will do all they can to prepare Williams for the spotlight, and because he was drafted so high, Arizona has a lot riding on his success.
Key skill: Press-man coverage
Why were the Cardinals so willing to take a risk on reaching for a player like Williams during the draft? A number of factors played into the team's decision, which of course was reassured by the glowing reviews Williams received from his college coaches and his status as a team captain.
Still, we believe the primary reason Arizona was willing to overlook Williams' lack of experience is the cornerback's tremendous athleticism. Arians has indicated playing cornerback for the Cardinals' isn't exactly the most complex job on the team, because Arizona often leaves its defensive backs in one-on-one, isolated situations. The Cardinals' propensity to blitz so frequently means Arizona's corners are often playing basic man coverages, and to play effective man coverage, a cornerback must be an outstanding athlete.
Williams fits the bill, and so does Jenkins, a player who has experience manning up both outside receivers and slot players. If the Cardinals are going to continue to blitz and put pressure on the quarterback in 2016, they will take some calculated risks in the defensive backfield, and Williams and Jenkins are the type of players who can help mitigate risks.
Man coverage is a lot more complex than just possessing great athleticism and the ability to run stride for stride with the best receivers in the game. But without the size, speed, and quick-twitch abilities of a superior athlete, playing man is considerably more difficult.
The Cardinals need players who can walk up to the line of scrimmage and press receivers, and then stay on their hip during the play, and the players who do this best in fall camp will be the ones Arizona ends up keeping for the regular season.
Overall value: Because the terms of Jenkins' contract remain undisclosed, it's impossible to gauge the type of value he can bring to the Cardinals' organization. We know Jenkins has the potential to serve as a veteran leader and a key piece who provides a bit of schematic versatility, but without knowing what type of money Jenkins stands to make, we can't assess whether or not the Cardinals' have the potential to reap the benefits from a team-friendly contract. As for Williams, the potential to provide Arizona with outstanding value is certainly prevalent, especially considering his four-year deal won't net him more than $1 million annually. However, it's also important to consider beyond the value of his contract, the Cardinals used one of their top two draft picks on Williams and need him to live up to his potential. Draft selections made in the first three to four rounds are essential for building out roster depth, keeping costs cheap, and allowing teams to stockpile rosters with homegrown talent as opposed to expensive free agents, so the Cardinals have a lot riding on Williams' development within their organization.