Defensive roster battles to watch Thursday night

Bruce Arians said last week about eight roster spots are up for grabs, and Thursday night's game is the final opportunity for certain players to make their case.

Earlier this week, the Arizona Cardinals reduced their roster size from 90 to 75 players in order to meet a league-wide deadline. Because the Cardinals are playing on a short week schedule and likely hope to sit some of their key starters, every player in the mix for one of the team's final roster spots should see extended playing time in Thursday night's preseason finale against the Denver Broncos. 

After Thursday's contest, Arizona will have until Saturday at 1 p.m. to finalize its 53-man roster for the 2016 regular season. At that point, the Cardinals can develop plans for the team's practice squad, which may include up to 10 players.

Last week, head coach Bruce Arians said about eight roster spots remained unsettled, with as many as 20 players contending for those spots. With injuries hampering the chances of players like Mike Jenkins and Alan Ball, the Cardinals probably have roughly 15-to-16 players still competing for unsettled spots.

With one final chance to leave an impression on the team's coaches and management still ahead, here are some of the key defensive battles to focus on Thursday night.

Cornerback: Cariel Brooks vs. Harlan Miller

Heading into the preseason, Miller's status as a 2016 draft selection likely made him a more viable option for the roster than Brooks, who was an undrafted free agent signed out of Adams State last offseason. Brooks narrowly missed the final cut a year ago, and came back to training camp determined to make the most of another opportunity.

With injuries to Justin Bethel, Jenkins and Ball during camp, Brooks had plenty of chances to work with the first and second team defense and has performed reasonably well in his repetitions. At this point in their respective careers, Brooks is probably a more developed full-service cornerback than Miller, who doesn't have the same ability to run with slot receivers and play in nickel packages Brooks possesses.

Still, this battle could come down to which player offers the Cardinals the most from a special teams standpoint, because with five safeties on the roster including two in Tyrann Mathieu and Tyvon Branch who can play nickel corner, Arizona needs punt and kick coverage assets more than a fourth cornerback. 

There's also a possibility the Cardinals elect to pursue resources elsewhere on the roster, and only keep three cornerbacks active as Arians has done in the past. Last week, CardinalsSource gave the edge to Miller, but Thursday's performances will determine our final prediction.

Outside linebacker: Shaquille Riddick vs. Tristan Okpalaugo

The Cardinals used a fifth round selection on Riddick, a defensive end out of West Virginia, in 2015, but Riddick did not register any statistics during his rookie season. Arizona was hoping Riddick's 2016 camp reflected the progress of his conversion to linebacker, but Riddick has largely underwhelmed in his second camp with the organization.

With a lingering injury that has kept him out of practices, Riddick may not have the opportunity to play Thursday, and if he does end up suiting up, he may not do so at full strength. While Riddick has had to push internally just to compete for a roster spot, the external addition of Okapalaugo, a former CFL star has turned Riddick's roster quest into an uphill battle.

Okpalaugo has demonstrated more explosive pass-rushing skills throughout camp, and with the addition of Chandler Jones to the Cardinals' roster this offseason, Arizona can afford for its fifth outside linebacker to focus simply on becoming a third and long pass-rushing specialist. 

Throughout camp, the Cardinals have used defensive end Josh Mauro in various situations as a fifth outside linebacker rushing from a two-point stance, so it's entirely possible neither Riddick or Okpalaugo makes the team's 53-man roster. With a wealth of defensive linemen contending for spots, Okpalaugo and Riddick may be competing against more than just each other. 

Inside linebacker: Chris Clemons vs. Alani Fua vs. Gabe Martin vs. Donald Butler

It remains to be seen whether the Cardinals elect to keep three or four inside linebackers, which is why the competition for roster spots remains so wide open at this point in the preseason. 

Based on the play of these four players, Clemons has enjoyed the best preseason as the converted safety has done a serviceable job backing up Deone Bucannon as the Cardinals' Money linebacker. But because Clemons isn't a natural inside linebacker, it likely makes more sense for the Cardinals to keep Fua ahead of Clemons, who gained a valuable year of experience in Arizona's system a season ago as an undrafted free agent out of BYU.

At the outset of camp, Martin looked like he should have the best opportunity to compete behind Fua as the team's fourth inside linebacker, but the additions of Clemons to the group after a position swap and the late signing of Butler complicated matters. Fortunately for Clemons and Martin, Butler has underwhelmed for most of the preseason, and will need an outstanding performance in the team's preseason finale to put himself back in the conversation for an inside linebacker spot.

If Arizona ends up keeping three players, Fua should have the inside track at the last roster spot. But if the Cardinals keep four, Clemons and Martin will likely go down to the wire as one of the final additions to the Cardinals team. In that scenario, we think Clemons prevails. 


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