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Cardinals' 90-man roster analysis: Safety

The Arizona Cardinals lost both of their starting safeties to free agency, but added veteran Antoine Bethea and second round draft choice Budda Baker to replenish the team's depth.

Tier Key

1: Players who, barring a significant setback or injury, will make the Cardinals' 53-man roster this season

2: Players who must compete for a spot on the Cardinals' 53-man roster this season

3: Players who are likely to be cut by the Cardinals prior to the team finalizing its 53-man roster this season

Safeties

Tier 1: Tyrann MathieuAntoine BetheaBudda Baker

Analysis: The back end of the Cardinals' defensive backfield will have a completely different look in 2017, as starters Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger both departed the organization in free agency. Jefferson and Swearinger formed one of the top one-two safety combos in the league last year, and helped the Cardinals overcome a down year for Tyrann Mathieu, who was never quite healthy and wound up finishing the season on injured reserve. Entering the 2017 season, Mathieu should be completely healthy and if he's comfortable returning to his role as a slot corner, it would open up a variety of options for Cardinals' defensive coordinator James Bettcher. Still, even if Mathieu can't play in the slot and winds up needing to play free safety to ease the stress on his small frame, the team added Budda Baker in the second round of the draft and Baker is already being dubbed "Baby Badger." While Baker doesn't have the ball skills or the same tenacious physical mindset, he's a similar player to Mathieu because he's so instinctual, fast enough to play in the slot, and is still able to make a considerable impact in the run game. Baker will have the chance to learn from Mathieu, as well as veteran Antoine Bethea, who will provide the Cardinals with a veteran leadership presence and a starting-caliber player who can align at either free safety or strong safety. While Bethea is clearly past his prime, he's still a serviceable option who can help the Cardinals on an every down basis if they need him to fill that role. 

Tier 2: Tyvon BranchHarlan Miller

Analysis: Tyvon Branch suffered through a tremendously disappointing season in his first campaign with the Cardinals, as the veteran went on injured reserve early in the season only to come back and re-injure himself and land on injured reserve for a second time. The season was such a troubling one for Branch that he and the Cardinals agreed to reduce his salary in 2017 and allow him to prove himself, but he may not have as many opportunities now that the Cardinals are invested in Baker and signed Bethea. Though Bruce Arians doesn't like to play rookies right away, Baker is a ready-made talent who only slipped to the second round of this year's draft because of questions regarding his long-term durability. One trait Branch has working in his favor is his positional versatility, because like Mathieu, he can play all over the field, even though he isn't necessarily a great nickel corner. Like Branch, Harlan Miller finds himself in tier two with an opportunity to compete for a roster spot. Miller spent the majority of the 2016 season on Arizona's practice squad as a cornerback, but when the Cardinals' depth became dire late in the year, Arizona used Miller as a safety and he exceeded expectations in a late-season affair in Seattle. Now, Miller will try to make the roster as a reserve safety on a team knowing the Cardinals will have a few injury-prone options ahead of him on the depth chart. 

Tier 3: Ironhead Gallon, Drico Johnson, Cyril Noland-Lewis

Analysis: The Cardinals hit the undrafted free agent pool hard at the safety position, as Arizona signed three different players who didn't hear their name called this April. There might not be a better name in football than "Ironhead," and Gallon could be the most intriguing player of the trio because he's attempting to transition from linebacker to safety in the NFL. At just 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, Gallon demonstrated he was capable of laying the wood in the box at Georgia Southern, where he earned First Team All-Sun Belt honors after posting 102 tackles a season ago. Gallon is up against Drico Johnson and Cyril Noland-Lewis, a pair of safeties who played their college ball at group of five schools in the southeast. For any of the three players to make the Cardinals' 53-man roster, they'll need to provide some sort of special teams value (a la Lamar Louis in 2016 training camp) and may need someone in one of the first two tiers to go down with an injury. 


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