The Arizona Cardinals had grand plans for cornerback Justin Bethel entering the 2016 season, but those plans never materialized.
Last offseason, the Cardinals gave Bethel a three-year, $15 million deal with $9 million in guaranteed money with the expectation that Bethel would be ready to start at cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson.
However, after offseason foot surgery and early season setbacks, Bethel never assumed the starting role carved out for him, as the Cardinals ended up acquiring former Kansas City cornerback Marcus Cooper to take Bethel's place.
With Bethel entering the second year of his contract, the Cardinals and the sixth-year NFL veteran reportedly struck a deal that cuts Bethel's salary for the 2017 season and eliminates his contract for the 2018 season.
According to Ian Whetstone, Bethel took a $2.5 million pay cut and will now make $2 million as opposed to $4.5 million in the upcoming season. The report was confirmed by Kent Somers of The Arizona Republic who also confirmed that Bethel will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2017 season.
The move frees up cap space for the 2017 season, and also gives Bethel the opportunity to prove himself at cornerback and sign a new free agent contract at the end of the season. During the offseason, Bethel has been outspoken about his belief that he'll win the starting cornerback job in Arizona in 2017, and if he does so and plays well, he stands to command more interest and a higher salary on the free agent market in 2018.
A three-time Pro Bowler as a special teams player, Bethel was drafted by the Cardinals in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft out of Presbyterian.
Bethel did not play much cornerback early in his career, but made a name for himself as one of the premier special teams players in the NFL. By 2015, the Cardinals wanted Bethel to expand on his role, and he did so by starting five games for the team at cornerback.
Arizona was impressed by Bethel's play, and he wound up signing the three-year, $15 million deal last offseason. However, Bethel made just three starts at cornerback in 2016 as Cooper and rookie Brandon Williams stole starts at cornerback.
During the 2016 campaign, Cardinals' head coach Bruce Arians termed Bethel a "failure in progress" at the cornerback position after uninspiring spurts of play, but late in the year, Arians appeared pleased with Bethel's efforts, especially when he started as the team's nickel cornerback.
The decision for Bethel to take a pay cut could pay dividends for both sides, as Arizona now has more flexibility to sign free agents this offseason and has an additional year to evaluate Bethel without having the burden of a $4.5 million salary on the books. If Bethel does end up winning the Cardinals' starting job and playing well, he'll have an opportunity to capitalize on his play next offseason.
Regardless of whether Bethel wins the starting job or not, though, Arizona still anticipates he'll play at a high level on the team's special teams units, where his roles should remain unchanged.