The Arizona Cardinals held their annual 'Red and White' practice Saturday afternoon at University of Phoenix Stadium as fans gathered to preview the team for the upcoming season.
All Cardinals' training camp practices are open to the public, but Saturday took on special significance for the franchise and served as an excellent opportunity for us to evaluate where the Cardinals stand with less than a month to go until the start of the regular season.
The Cardinals' secondary took a beating on Saturday afternoon as the defense suffered through the worst team period we've viewed this season during the first half of practice. Rookie corner Brandon Williams couldn't contain Jaron Brown, Michael Floyd had no trouble getting open, and Arizona's backs and tight ends were routinely left uncovered.
Part of the secondary's struggles were due to late whistles from referees which allowed plays to extend longer than they should have, but there were far too many instances in which the Cardinals' receivers had an easy time creating separation from their defenders.
The Cardinals know what they have in an All-Pro like Patrick Peterson, who was actually roasted by Brown on a deep touchdown pass from Carson Palmer Saturday afternoon, but beyond Peterson, question marks abound. Arizona is counting on a healthy Tyrann Mathieu, and the contract extension Mathieu signed this week suggests the Cardinals have few doubts he'll return to full strength.
But even with those two players, that's only half of a secondary. Free agent signee Tyvon Branch has underwhelmed in training camp, and isn't playing as much safety as we expected. While Tony Jefferson and journeyman D.J. Swearinger man the Cardinals' safety positions, Branch has primarily served as a nickel corner and even took a rep as an outside cornerback at one point during today's practice.
Branch signed a two-year, $8 million deal this offseason, and the Cardinals can't afford for Branch to ultimately settle into a backup role behind Mathieu when he's making that kind of money. Arizona needs Branch to become an impact nickel corner, a serviceable safety who can allow Mathieu to roam free, and a consistent playmaker opposite of Jefferson. So far, we can't say with certainty Branch will be able to live up to the value his contract suggests he's worth.
The most pressing question mark, however, is the cornerback spot opposite Peterson. The Cardinals let Jerraud Powers walk in free agency, with external assumptions being that Justin Bethel would slide into a starting role. Unfortunately for Arizona, Bethel underwent offseason surgery and has yet to participate in training camp.
Bethel's absence has left Williams, the team's third-round draft pick, as the first team corner opposite Peterson. While team personnel have raved about Williams' work ethic and athleticism, we said when the Cardinals drafted him that Williams' skill set was very raw.
To this point in training camp, we're unwilling to change that assessment, as Williams has looked like a deer in the headlights on far too many occasions. While Williams has plays that showcase his ultra-high ceiling from time to time, he lapses in coverage too frequently for us to believe he can provide consistency at cornerback at least in the early part of his rookie season.
If Bethel returns to health and form, this won't be a problem for Arizona, but the team's recent transactions suggest the Cardinals may have some internal concerns about their cornerback depth.
After signing veteran corner Mike Jenkins in the week leading up to training camp, Jenkins broke a bone in his hand and is expected to miss about two more weeks of practice. Jenkins' injury allowed the team to examine players like Cariel Brooks, an undrafted free agent in 2015 out of Adams State who is quite clearly the Cardinals' third cornerback right now.
Brooks is competing with veterans like Asa Jackson and Shaun Prater for a roster spot, and though the competition is intense, it likely won't net Arizona with the type of player they want to count on at the bottom of their depth chart.
On Thursday, Arizona signed another veteran in Alan Ball, and in our first look at Ball on Saturday, he looked like the second best option behind Peterson. Ball secured a pick-six against Drew Stanton, didn't have noticeable coverage breakdowns, and also made a few nice plays in run support on the edge.
Ball is the type of player the Cardinals can live with if he slots in behind Bethel or Peterson, but right now, there's a world of uncertainty in Arizona's secondary.
The silver lining is that there's still a month left to go before the season, and the Cardinals have had the opportunity to speed the learning curve of a draft pick in Williams. Two weeks from now, the team may also have veterans in Ball and Jenkins competing for spots ahead of more unproven players like Brooks and Jackson, so the opportunity for improvement in the secondary is definitely feasible.
One of the factors we failed to mention when discussing the Cardinals' troubles in the defensive backfield is one we purposely saved. Through fall camp, Arizona's receivers have looked like the team's strongest unit, and it's no easy task to defend the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Floyd on the same play.
While Brown has been sidelined with concussion symptoms this week, Fitzgerald, Floyd and Brown have proven why Arizona has so much confidence in this unit.
Brown is technically the fourth or fifth Cardinals' receiver, depending on how the team utilizes J.J. Nelson, and in an extended role over the past week, Brown has made a case he could start for a large number of NFL teams.
What Brown might lack in physicality, he makes up for in speed and an ability to adjust to the ball down the field, which is an underrated factor in a receiver's success. Brown positioned his body really well on a handful of catches today and shielded Williams from having an opportunity to bat down a pass when he was close in coverage on two separate plays.
Another pleasant surprise of camp for the Cardinals at receiver has been the play of Brittan Golden. Golden is the Cardinals' sixth receiver, which essentially means his most important role is to fill out Arizona's special teams units.
With John Brown and J.J. Nelson sidelined this week, Golden was the clear standout among the Cardinals' second team offensive players. Stanton consistently targeted Golden, and he had no trouble creating space in the open field.
Earlier in the week, Golden made a few sensational diving plays, but on Saturday, he was just consistent with his footwork, demonstrated strong hands, and certainly made a case to earn more reps on game days. It'll be interesting to see how Golden fares against teams with more depth at cornerback and safety than the Cardinals currently have, but from a pure route-running and pass-catching standpoint, he looks like a player ready to contribute more offensively.
Lastly, one of the players we've found most impressive in camp had a quiet day Saturday, but is still worth mentioning. Undrafted free agent Chris Hubert drew praise from head coach Bruce Arians on Friday, as Arians cited Hubert's big-play ability as something that's caught his attention throughout camp.
Unfortunately for Hubert, the depth chart is absolutely stacked at wide receiver and the Cardinals won't carry more than six players, but if the team can sneak him onto the practice squad and hide him away from other franchises, Hubert could be the first man called upon if an active roster receiver suffers an injury.
Hubert's progress is tangible as well, because on Saturday, he appeared to have surpassed Jaxon Shipley on the depth chart. Shipley has been one of the last players cut for the Cardinals before, and entered camp ahead of Hubert on the team's initial depth chart. While Shipley was practicing alongside Golden and Hubert with the second team Saturday, Shipley, and not Hubert, had to rep with the third team offense as well.
Draft pick progress
Heading into the 2016 NFL Draft, head coach Bruce Arians acknowledged the Cardinals' late round choices would have difficulty making the Cardinals roster this season because general manager Steve Keim has added so much quality depth during his tenure.
After watching the Cardinals' draft choices through the first week of camp, Arians' assessment looks spot-on.
First round draft choice Robert Nkemdiche's roster spot is not in question, but the defensive end out of Ole Miss has yet to practice due to a high ankle sprain suffered during rookie workouts. Nkemdiche was a gamble of a selection for the Cardinals, but not because of his injury history. Character concerns forced many teams to pass on the high-upside talent who was the No. 1 overall recruit in the country coming out of high school, but an injury shouldn't concern the Cardinals too much unless the issue persists during the season. Once Nkemdiche arrives on the practice field, we'll be able to offer a much more thorough assessment of how he fits in with the Cardinals' defense.
We've already covered the challenges Williams, the team's third round selection, faces at cornerback but it's worth mentioning draft experts considered the selection of Williams as a reach at that point in the draft. Like Nkemdiche, Williams was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, but Williams didn't play defense. Instead, he began his career as a running back at Oklahoma, before transferring to Texas A&M.
Williams changed positions to cornerback heading into his senior year, and though the process of learning the position at the NFL level has been difficult, Williams was a team captain for the Aggies and all reports out of Cardinals camp suggest he's got outstanding makeup. Still, Williams will need to be persistent with his development and reach a point where something clicks technically, because he's relying too much on his athleticism and speed in the reps we've watched him take. Williams needs to do a better job of using his eyes to lock in on receivers' hips in order to anticipate movement, and also needs to hone his ball skills. Williams will often be in a good position, but he'll fail to make a play because he won't get his hands up to defend a pass in time.
Fourth round draft choice Evan Boehm was billed as the center of the future for Arizona, and immediately following his selection, the Cardinals suggested Boehm may compete right away for the starting job in 2016. Through camp so far, though, that has not been the case. Boehm is quite clearly behind A.Q. Shipley at center, and Arians has indicated it's Shipley's job to lose. Shipley isn't outstanding by any means and Boehm definitely has a higher ceiling, but center is an extraordinarily complicated position to play in the NFL and Arians rarely likes to throw rookies into the fire before they're prepared to handle it. Because the Cardinals have a need for Williams to improve rapidly and a hole due to Bethel's injury, he's an exception, but it's unlikely the team speeds the development of Boehm unless it believes Shipley is ill-equipped to handle the starting job.
Arizona had two fifth round draft choices, and so far, the players are trending in opposite directions. Safety Marqui Christian was an intriguing selection out of Midwestern State, and Christian has already worked himself into a second-team safety role. With Mathieu serving as a hybrid player, the Cardinals will likely keep four safeties in addition to the LSU product and Christian has positioned himself nicely. Christian is a physical defender who has demonstrated great closing speed, and once he understands the scheme better, we think the hesitation he's shown in making some reads in camp will begin to go away. Christian has the tools to develop into a nice playmaker for the Cardinals, but like most draft picks, his development will take time.
The team's other fifth round pick was Harvard offensive tackle Cole Toner, who has already moved inside to guard for the Cardinals. We didn't think Toner would be physical enough or have the speed to play guard in the NFL, because he doesn't accelerate out of his stance well and had a tendency to stand straight up too often on the college film we watched. Since moving to guard, his acceleration hasn't improved much, but his flexibility is much better than he showcased on film. On Saturday, we saw Toner execute a great combo block where he worked to the second level after shoving a defensive tackle off the line of scrimmage, and it served as the first time Toner really caught our eye. Still, with a few different players like Earl Watford and Antoine McClain likely to serve in backup roles at guard for Arizona, Toner is probably headed for the practice squad.
Lastly, sixth round draft choice Harlan Miller was a different type of pick for Keim and Arians, because the pair has traditionally valued speed in the draft. Williams is the prototypical example of a superior athlete the Cardinals believe they can mold into a playmaker, whereas Miller's athleticism was his primary question mark heading into the draft. So far, the cornerback's lack of agility appears to be hurting his cause for a roster spot, as he has hardly made his way onto the third team defense at a position at which the Cardinals are desperately searching for answers. We liked Miller's college film and thought he might have a chance to surprise as a late round draft pick, but right now, Miller's is the one analysis we'd like to have back.