As of Thursday afternoon, there was only one thing left standing between the Arizona Cardinals and their week one showdown with the New England Patriots: A pesky fourth preseason contest against the Denver Broncos.
Preseason football is long and drawn out, and there's little to be gained from playing more than two or three preseason games, but Thursday did offer a handful of Cardinals one final opportunity to make a case for a roster spot.
After falling behind 10-0 early, quarterback Matt Barkley led the offense through an impressive first half performance and ultimately helped the team to a 38-17 win over the Broncos.
Barkley was one of the Cardinals attempting to make a case in front of general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians for a roster spot, and his efforts highlights our five takeaways from Thursday's game.
1. Matt Barkley might not clear waivers if he's cut
The Cardinals have been firm in their commitment to Drew Stanton who served as the team's backup quarterback throughout the preseason, and Barkley's performance Thursday night isn't going to force the team to reconsider Stanton's status. However, after a rough start in which he lost a fumble on the team's second series, Barkley rebounded well and tossed a pair of first half touchdowns.
Going against the Broncos' second team defense for much of the night, Barkley demonstrated consistent footwork and a quick-enough release to hit receivers like Brittan Golden and Jaxon Shipley on intermediate and deep routes, which is an essential part of quarterbacking in the Cardinals' offense. While some coaches want game managers, Arians wants a quarterback who isn't afraid to take shots and has the arm strength to complete those shots.
Earlier in the week, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's injury highlighted the dearth of capable backup signal-callers in the NFL, and on Thursday, Barkley proved he belongs in the conversation among backup options. While the Cardinals might see Barkley as a third quarterback or practice squad option, another team could have watched his efforts Thursday night and determined he's a more valuable backup than an in-house option.
If the Cardinals do elect to waive Barkley and hope to sign him to the team's practice squad, Arizona is taking a risk considering any team could swoop in and sign him.
2. Jaxon Shipley belongs on an NFL roster
Golden put his stamp on the team's competition for the sixth receiver spot with his six-catch effort on Sunday against the Texans. If there were any doubts about Golden's roster status, he answered that with his technically sound blocking and a 41-yard first quarter reception Thursday night.
Still, Shipley has been a standout over the last couple of weeks, and hauled in a second touchdown reception in as many games right before halftime. Shipley's route running is crisp, his hands are solid, and he creates separation as well as Golden. Golden is the superior special teams player, but Shipley can still contribute on coverage units and served as the Cardinals' backup punt returner on Thursday.
The bottom line? Shipley deserves a shot as an NFL team's fifth or sixth wide receiver, and it's really difficult to envision a scenario where he clears waivers and ends up on the Cardinals' practice squad.
After a four-catch, 67-yard performance on Thursday, a team looking for help at wide receiver should look no further than the Cardinals' waiver wire come Sunday.
3. Arizona has no reason to feel confident about its cornerback situation
A tough situation got worse for the Cardinals on Thursday night, as the team has yet to settle on the starting cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson.
Veteran Justin Bethel missed much of training camp as he recovered from offseason surgery, and in his return to game action Sunday, Bethel did not perform up to par. Then, Bethel was ruled out of Thursday's game because of an injury that could threaten his status for the season opener.
If Bethel can't go against New England, the competition will be temporarily put on hold and rookie Brandon Williams will make his first career start. Williams began camp on a strong note as the Cardinals insisted his attitude and work ethic made up for shortcomings in experience, but he has yet to demonstrate the needed competency to cover starting receivers during the preseason.
The team's leading option as the fourth cornerback is former undrafted free agent Cariel Brooks, who played with Arizona's practice squad last season and has performed reasonably well against backups for much of the preseason. Unfortunately for Brooks and the Cardinals, he struggled through one of the worst performances of any Cardinals defensive back this preseason against the Broncos, as receiver Jordan Taylor ran circles around Brooks for much of the night.
It has become quite clear that Bethel, Williams and Brooks represent a step down from last year's second corner in Jerraud Powers, who the team let walk in free agency and could have likely signed to a one-year deal for less than $2 million.
The Cardinals took a risk by letting Powers go, and after Thursday's performance, it's hard to imagine Arizona hasn't second-guessed that decision. Arizona shouldn't have many weaknesses this season, but cornerback is becoming an obvious one.
4. Elijhaa Penny deserves a practice squad nod
There aren't many 6-foot-2, 247-pound running backs in the NFL, but Penny has a rare blend of size and speed that gives him an edge entering running lanes. With Stepfan Taylor sidelined Thursday night, Penny had an extended opportunity to play and shared carries with Kerwynn Williams.
Penny racked up 23 carries for 113 yards, but it was the manner in which he ran that was more impressive than his stat line. One of the most challenging skills for larger running backs to develop is the ability to run downhill and roll forward, because defensive players often possess a lower center of gravity and can drive ball carriers backward.
Penny hasn't run into this issue much during the preseason, although there was one play Thursday night that highlighted why he's not quite ready for a spot on the team's 53-man roster. Arizona had the ball at the goal line on a third down play in the first half, and Penny had a clear path to the edge. All Penny had to do was lower his shoulder and bulldoze his way into the end zone, but instead, he ran with a high pad level and lost leverage against a defender and was stopped at the one-yard line.
On most plays, Penny has the look of a bruising, change-of-pace back who can roll his body forward and pick up an extra yard upon contact. But Penny isn't quite there yet, and that's why he could use a season developing on the Cardinals' practice squad before contending for a roster spot again next year.
5. Arizona's rookie linemen look just fine
At the outset of camp, first round draft choice Robert Nkemdiche was in a walking boot, fourth round pick Evan Boehm wasn't given much of a chance to compete for the starting center job, and fifth round selection Cole Toner didn't look like he had the physicality to play guard in the NFL.
Fast forward a month, and my how times have changed.
Nkemdiche didn't play until the Cardinals' third preseason contest, and though he eased into action, he demonstrated his playmaking potential in a variety of ways against the Broncos. Nkemdiche roughed up Denver's interior linemen and consistently disrupted the footwork of Denver's Paxton Lynch, proving he shouldn't have a problem adjusting to the speed of the NFL game.
One of the knocks on Nkemdiche's game coming out of college was his consistency. At least as a rookie, Nkemdiche should find himself in the role of a rotational lineman rather than one who plays on every down, so if he can make an impact on the plays he's in, Nkemdiche could deliver an impressive campaign.
From the first day of camp, veteran A.Q. Shipley ran with the first team offensive line at center, and Boehm never received an opportunity to play with the first unit. However, Boehm has looked increasingly impressive throughout the preseason, and capped off his first month in the NFL with his best effort to date against Denver. Boehm looked comfortable against stunts and blitzers as a pass-blocker, and demonstrated the nasty streak he became known for at Missouri as a run-blocker.
As for Toner, he arrived at camp looking tentative as a run-blocker and playing with a pad level reminiscent of a tackle while playing guard. That's likely because Toner developed the habit playing right tackle at Harvard, but the transition to the interior of the offensive line didn't look like it would be easy for him.
At various points during camp, CardinalsSource wasn't sure if Toner was even in a position to make the roster, but around week three, something clicked and Toner took on a completely different mentality. The former Crimson lineman played with a rugged disposition as a run-blocker and looked more comfortable as a pulling guard in games three and four. By the end of Thursday's game, there were no doubts remaining about Toner's roster status, as he looks like a developing depth option for Arizona.null