"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: Bethel: 26, Peterson: 26
Experience: Bethel: 5th season, Peterson: 6th season
Contract status: Bethel: 2016-$3,250,000, 2017-$5,250,000, 2018-$5,750,000, Peterson: 2016-$13,072,377, 2017-$13,072,377 2018-$14,322,377, 2019-$11,250,000 2020-$12,550,000
2015 season quick review: After struggling a bit in 2014, Peterson was diagnosed with diabetes and was able to return to full strength heading into the 2015 season. The difference in Peterson's play was noticeable last year as the LSU product returned to the Cardinals as one of the top cornerbacks in the league. Teams often refused to throw the ball in Peterson's direction, which played a part in the Cardinals' cornerback tying a career low with just two interceptions. While Peterson was excellent, Bethel suffered some growing pains as he earned the first five starts of his career last year. Bethel wasn't stellar, but he did prove to Arizona's management he's more than just a special teams asset, and the Cardinals rewarded him with a contract in December befit of a starting corner.
Projected roster status: Both Peterson and Bethel are as close to locks as you'll find for players entering preseason camp with the Cardinals who figure to make the final roster. Peterson is an absolute guarantee thanks to his status as a face of the franchise, while it's highly unlikely Arizona would cut Bethel for salary cap considerations less than a year after offering him an extension. Peterson may never face questions about his projected roster status, but if Bethel doesn't live up to expectations at cornerback this season, the Cardinals may be faced with a dilemma when his salary rises past $5 million in 2017 and 2018. The major question mark surrounding Bethel is his health, as he missed offseason activities after surgery and will start training camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Bethel can be activated at any time during the preseason, though, assuming he does not suffer any setbacks.
Projected depth chart status: Peterson is an unquestioned starter as the Cardinals' top option at cornerback, and across the field, the contract general manager Steve Keim rewarded Bethel with suggests the Cardinals believe he will start as the team's other outside cornerback. Bethel has played nickel cornerback during his career with Arizona, but mentioned on a number of occasions last season he felt more comfortable as an outside corner which is where he played when Jerraud Powers was injured last year. Unlike Peterson, Bethel will have to fight to win the role, but it should be Bethel's job to lose heading into fall camp. If Cariel Brooks or Mike Jenkins outperforms Bethel, the Cardinals will certainly keep Bethel on the roster as a backup because of his special teams production, but the team will likely give Bethel a few extra chances to win the starting job.
Position group analysis: Even though Peterson has just a lone year of experience on Bethel, Peterson has 75 more career starts than his fellow defensive back. The ironman has never missed a start during his five-year career, whereas Bethel didn't make his first start until last season. The difference in experience is significant because the Cardinals are counting on two completely different players to lock down opposing receivers this season. Bethel's inexperience may have factored into the team's decision to sign Jenkins last week, but it probably didn't contribute as much to the decision to draft Brandon Williams, a raw but athletic corner out of Texas A&M who projects more as a nickel corner early in his career. Neither Jenkins nor Williams is a lock to be active on game days in the same way Bethel is once he returns to health, but the competition at cornerback is expected to be heated during fall camp and Bethel will need to stay at the top of his game to maintain his spot on the depth chart.
Moving forward: There's no doubt the Cardinals believe Peterson can continue to excel as one of the league's best players well into the future as he's scheduled to make upward of $11 million annually through the 2020 season. Peterson is one of the franchise's most recognizable faces, and with the likely retirements of players like Larry Fitzgerald and Carson Palmer within the next few seasons, Peterson's role as an ambassador for the franchise will probably continue to expand. Bethel, on the other hand, will need to use the 2016 and even the 2017 seasons to take ownership of his role on the defensive side of the ball. Cardinals fans glued in to the inner workings of the franchise know there's not a more talented special teams player in the league than Bethel, but if he wants to take the next step in his career and become a piece the Cardinals value for years to come, he'll need to improve his production as a cornerback. The Cardinals have proven they want to see Bethel succeed, and the pressure is on for the upcoming season.
Overall value: We elected not to discuss a key skill for Peterson and Bethel because the pair is probably locked into roster spots, and as a starting corner in the NFL, there's an endless list of skills to work on. We could have chosen man coverage skills, ball skills, reading and protecting against play action shots and more, but ultimately, for an NFL cornerback to earn a reputation as a complete corner, a player must excel in all of those capacities.
The value Peterson brings to the Cardinals' franchise is immense, but also expected of a player earning his salary. Peterson is one of the 10 highest paid defensive backs in the NFL, and teams paying players that type of money expect players to shut down their side of the field. Fortunately for the Cardinals, aside from a stretch in 2014, Peterson has done so and since his diabetes diagnosis, he's shown no signs of slowing down. Of course, it will be extraordinarily difficult for Peterson to live up to the terms of his contract through 2020, because it would require five more seasons of playing at the highest level possible, but in order for a team to keep a player like Peterson in the fold, it has little choice but to pay a significant sum. Furthermore, the marketability and value off of the football field Peterson brings to the franchise is immeasurable, and that's a benefit not many players can tout.
As for Bethel, 2016 is really a trial run in terms of his overall value, because he'll still make under $3.5 million which is actually relatively reasonable for a starting cornerback in the NFL. If Bethel demonstrates improvement and consistency in a starting role this season, he could be viewed as a relative bargain for the organization. When Bethel's salary jumps upward of $5 million next year, the Cardinals will already know what type of a corner they'll have because they'll receive an extended look at Bethel this season. Bethel's contract is team-friendly in some regards and player-friendly in others, but all in all, the franchise will have an opportunity to evaluate Bethel before he's scheduled to take on a larger salary which is a good move for Arizona.