Arizona Cardinals' cornerback Justin Bethel returned to the practice field Sunday afternoon less than a week after the team activated Bethel from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
When the Cardinals let starting cornerback Jerraud Powers walk in free agency this offseason, the assumption was that Bethel would take over Powers' starting role and play opposite Patrick Peterson this year. However, after surgery sidelined Bethel for the first three weeks of training camp, Cardinals' head coach Bruce Arians said the job opposite Peterson was third round draft pick Brandon Williams' to lose.
Bethel started the first five games of his career in 2015 after spending the earliest parts of his career as a special teams asset--a Pro Bowl one at that--and performed with mixed results in his defensive reps. On Monday, Arians said he felt Bethel took plays made against him too personally last season, which is a contrast from Williams who has, by all public accounts from Cardinals coaches and players, responded to adversity admirably in his first fall camp.
Bethel's return to the field was received in a positive way by Arians on Sunday, who qualified his statement about the starting job made earlier in the preseason by saying competition at the position is still alive and well. Arians also indicated Bethel looked impressive in his first action of training camp, which is a positive sign for the Cardinals' cornerback moving forward.
If Bethel ultimately wins the starting job, it may slow Williams' development, but it could aid the Cardinals' other rookie cornerback, Harlan Miller. A sixth round draft choice this April, Miller has had a quiet camp to date, and has worked with the third and fourth team corners for a franchise that typically carries just four cornerbacks.
Despite being a draft pick, Miller seemingly has a steep uphill battle to make the Cardinals' 53-man active roster this fall. That's because Bethel's injury and Williams' inexperience forced the hand of general manager Steve Keim, who signed two veteran cornerbacks in Mike Jenkins and Alan Ball to compete for a roster spot.
Aside from Jenkins and Ball, second-year cornerback and former undrafted free agent Cariel Brooks has worked as a nickel corner and as the team's third corner behind Peterson and Williams during a camp in which the Cardinals defensive backs have struggled to remain healthy. With Ball, Brooks, Jenkins, Miller all in the fold, Arizona has four cornerbacks battling for what likely amounts to one roster spot.
So how exactly does Bethel's return aid Miller?
Teams rarely want to part with a draft pick, especially prior to the start of a player's rookie season. If Bethel's health was in question, though, Arizona may have had little choice but to take out an insurance claim and keep a player like Jenkins or Ball who has already demonstrated success at the NFL level ahead of Miller. While neither Jenkins or Ball are going to be considered game-changers at this point in their careers, their presence would allow an injury to a player higher-up on the depth chart to give way to a more capable and proven cornerback.
With Bethel's return, Arizona now can afford to take more of a risk and keep Miller on the roster if the organization is satisfied in the top three options on the depth chart. A fourth cornerback typically serves a team primarily in a special teams capacity, so that alone may enable Arizona to narrow the competition to Brooks and Miller. At this point in camp, neither Jenkins or Ball has taken many special teams reps, whereas younger players like Brooks and Miller have both rotated on punt coverage and punt return units.
If the Cardinals want to keep the best 53 players on the roster, Brooks may the team's best option as the fourth corner because of his versatility to play against slot receivers and play on every special teams unit. However, if the team wants to build toward the future and commit to developing Miller, Arizona can elect to keep Miller ahead of Brooks, while risking the possibility of another NFL organization signing the player the Cardinals end up cutting or trying to sign to their practice squad.