Cardinals-Chargers: Five takeaways

For the second straight week, the Arizona Cardinals struggled to find offensive rhythm and consistency.

Preseason results don't make a difference, but individual preseason performances are worth evaluating because they help paint a broader portrait of an NFL team's capabilities. 

The Larry Fitzgerald's and Patrick Peterson's of the world don't need to use preseason games as a proving ground, but for most players, the preseason is an opportunity to gain ground in positional and depth chart battles or tune up in anticipation of the regular season.

While the Cardinals still have three weeks until the start of the regular season, the team's 19-3 loss at the hands of the San Diego Chargers served as a cause for concern for a handful of players. Neither Carson Palmer or Drew Stanton were particularly sharp, and the team's secondary struggled against the Chargers' backup quarterbacks. 

On the flip side, Arizona once again proved it has the running back and wide receiver depth to go toe-to-toe with the league's elite teams, and the Cardinals' starting defensive line will be difficult to handle for even the most stout protection units. 

Preseason isn't a time to overreact, but there are a few takeaways worth noting from the second week of Arizona's preseason action.

1. The Cardinals should entertain a competition at cornerback

If the first two games of the preseason have helped highlight any of the Cardinals' deficiencies, the team's most glaring weakness is the cornerback spot opposite of Peterson. Head coach Bruce Arians said the team's second starting cornerback job is rookie Brandon Williams' to lose, but with Williams' play through the first two preseason contests, Williams may be struggling to hang on. 

Raiders' quarterback Derek Carr targeted Williams from the first play of the preseason opener last week, and Chargers' backup Kellen Clemens picked up where Carr left off. Williams was lost against the Raiders, but slowly showed signs of improvement throughout the first half of that game. On Friday night in San Diego, Williams again struggled against first team receivers, especially Keenan Allen who went up and high-pointed a ball over Williams' head when the cornerback was in good position.

Unfortunately for Williams, he's been in decent position on a few plays through the preseason, but he hasn't demonstrated the type of ball skills required to consistently beat starting receivers in the NFL. Williams has plenty of speed and athleticism, and the Cardinals have surely tried to accelerate his learning curve, but at this point, Williams still doesn't look close to being ready to start in week one. 

Bill Belichick exploits weaknesses better than anyone in the NFL, and Arizona has to be confident in Williams to roll him out in front of Justin Bethel. Bethel was only recently activated from the physically unable to perform list, but with plenty of time left for Bethel to work against the Cardinals' first team receivers in practice over the next several weeks, the Cardinals need to entertain the thought of starting Bethel in week one.

Yes, Williams has a higher ceiling and we believe he'll ultimately become a better cornerback than Bethel, but Arians may need to rethink the decision of playing Williams early in the season and follow the wait-and-see technique he typically uses with rookies.

2. Arizona can afford to bring in an extra offensive lineman

The Cardinals' offensive line was clearly outplayed by San Diego's first team defense on Friday night, as center A.Q. Shipley struggled mightily with nearly every interior defender the Chargers threw at him. Shipley couldn't gain ground in run blocking, and was on his heels throughout the first quarter in pass protection. 

The center position is one of the most difficult to play in the NFL, which is perhaps why the Cardinals appear to have a long leash for Shipley. Nevertheless, it would be wise for Arizona to explore the possibility of using Earl Watford at center over the next few weeks. Watford has been limited in camp because of an injury and missed Friday's game, but if Watford can stay healthy, he's probably one of the Cardinals best five offensive linemen.

Right now, Shipley is holding down the center position because of his knowledge of the offense and because rookie Evan Boehm may not be ready to handle the challenges of starting from the outset of his career. However, Boehm has looked increasingly effective over the course of training camp and has two above-average performances to show for it.

The offensive line struggles were not simply a result of Shipley's failures, though, as right tackle D.J. Humphries had trouble with some of the Chargers' stunts at the line of scrimmage. Humphries improved as the game went along, and we think he could end up being a pleasant surprise for the Cardinals by the end of the season, but Humphries may benefit from a challenger because there's no one on the depth chart in position to push him for playing time.

General manager Steve Keim hasn't been afraid to pursue veteran depth options at positions like cornerback and linebacker, and Friday's performance may force him to reevaluate the Cardinals' situation along the offensive line. At the moment, neither backup tackle looks like a viable option, and the team's starting offensive line has yet to gel on the field. While Keim may want to avoid overreacting, brining in a proven offensive lineman at the veteran minimum is a possibility Arizona may want to explore in the next few days, even if the move just adds depth.

3. The Cardinals' offensive skill position depth is substantial

It's hard to imagine any NFL teams have a more spirited competition for a fourth running back or a sixth wide receiver spot than the Cardinals have right now. Behind David JohnsonChris Johnson and Andre Ellington, both Stepfan Taylor and Kerwynn Williams could level legitimate claims they deserve an active roster spot for Arizona this season.

Taylor is the more complete back, as he catches passes, blocks and plays special teams better than Williams, but in terms of pure rushing ability, Williams probably has an edge. One of the advantages the Cardinals have in keeping a player like Taylor is that he can also serve as a fullback in goal line or short yardage plays, while Williams is somewhat redundant to Ellington. Williams and Ellington have slightly different skill sets, but when you carry four running backs on a roster, you want your third and fourth players to compliment the skill sets of the top two players on the depth chart in different ways.

At receiver, Jaron Brown has had the type of training camp we'd expect to see from a No. 1 or a No. 2 wide receiver, but definitely not from a No. 4 or a No. 5 option. If Brown builds on his preseason performances in the regular season, Arizona may not be as concerned if it ends up having to part ways with Michael Floyd at the end of the season due to salary cap considerations. Brown looks poised for a breakout season, and in the absence of Fitzgerald and John Brown on Friday, he looked the part of a starter.

Behind Brown, J.J. Nelson is a phenomenal speed threat who won't catch more than three passes in a given game, but serves as the type of player who can open up an offense. For a team that takes as many down-the-field chances as the Cardinals do, Nelson is a great depth option. 

With Brittan Golden sidelined due to injury, both Jaxon Shipley and Chris Hubert had extended opportunities to make a case for the roster. After Friday's game, there wasn't much clarity added to the picture of who will make the team among the trio of Golden, Shipley and Hubert, but through training camp, all three players have demonstrated a strong ability to create separation from defensive backs, especially on intermediate routes. Shipley and Hubert both looked strong on crossing routes Friday, and Shipley nearly made one of the preseason plays of the year as he came down with a pass with an acrobatic display on an out route with just one foot in bounds. 

4. The Cardinals should consider sacrificing a roster spot elsewhere to keep a fourth tight end

It's no secret Arians loves 12-personnel, and when the Cardinals were backed up against their own goal line tonight, offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin even called for a 13-personnel set. Jermaine Gresham is underrated as a blocker, and it should come as no surprise Arians and Keim targeted Gresham as a free agent early on in Arians' tenure as head coach. The Cardinals' offensive success relies on their tight ends' abilities to block in both the running game and in pass protection, and Gresham is a pro's pro in that regard.

Former second round draft pick Troy Niklas has managed to stay healthy throughout camp, and has subsequently enjoyed the type of breakout camp the Cardinals have been waiting on since his arrival to the organization. Niklas ran with the first team for much of this week, and his blocking abilities should help him earn more playing time over the course of the season.

The player currently running third on the depth chart, Darren Fells, is the tight end who actually became the Cardinals' go-to option at tight end at points during last season because his upside is immense. A converted basketball player who came to football late, Fells may never figure out the intricacies of the position at the highest level, but his monster frame and nasty streak are a potent combination in an Arians offense. Fells struggled quite a bit early in Friday's contest, and probably won't grade out positively, but he's an asset the Cardinals can use creatively.

The fact all three of the tight ends listed receive considerable playing time is more than enough reason for Arizona to consider adding a fourth tight end to its roster this year. Ifeanyi Momah doesn't have any meaningful NFL experience, but Momah gives the Cardinals something they don't currently have on their depth chart, and that's a dynamic pass catcher at the position. Sure, Gresham played that role early in his career, but in 2016, Momah is the fresher player with more athleticism who offers quarterbacks a more versatile target from a route-running perspective. 

The Cardinals may not see a need for Momah with the way they use their tight ends, but plenty of other NFL teams could benefit from his play-making abilities. Arians has said if not for an injury, Momah may have made the roster last season, and he brings enough of a change-of-pace to the unit that he should merit serious consideration once again.

5. Drew Stanton may not be as dependable as the Cardinals think

Because of his efforts when Palmer went down with an ACL injury in 2014, Cardinals backup Drew Stanton has been perceived as one of the more stable, dependable backups in the NFL. The narrative goes: With a quarterback like Stanton, a team isn't going to win any extra games, but it might not lose too many either.

The Cardinals have helped orchestrate that narrative with a generous extension offered to Stanton this offseason, and their open decision to avoid holding a competition for the backup job. Throughout camp, Arians has made it clear Matt Barkley and Jacob Coker are competing for the team's third string job, if it ends up exiting, and not for a backup role.

After two preseason games, which are typically a backup quarterback's best opportunity to shine, Stanton has given the Cardinals little reason to believe they could withstand an injury to Palmer. Against San Diego, Stanton suffered threw a dismal 2-for-7 performance marred by a terribly overthrown interception. 

Stanton also tossed a pick against Oakland in the first week of the preseason, and has consistently put balls in jeopardy in the team's first two preseason games. Perhaps the greatest cause for concern isn't Stanton's overthrows or his marginal statistics, but rather the fact his poor results have come against second string defenses. 

It might be short-sighted to say Stanton's preseason performances are indicative of his regular season potential, because it's hard to put much stock in preseason football. However, Stanton is the type of player whose role matters in the preseason, and he's given the Cardinals few reasons to express confidence in his game.

One factor working in Stanton's favor in our estimation, though: In the training camp practices we've attended, Stanton has clearly outperformed Barkley, who has clearly outperformed Coker. So while he may have struggled in game action, he has looked better in other situations this fall. 


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