Will rookie Tyrann Mathieu crack the starting lineup Week 1?
With such high turnover between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, there are bound to be a few lively training camp battles in between. That in-between time has arrived, and over the next six weeks, we will all bear witness to these battles until they are settled—ideally, settled before the start of the season.
Thankfully, for all parties considered, there will be no quarterback battle this year. For the fans who watched the past three seasons, that is a breath of fresh air.
Carson Palmer is the starter behind center, and he is a significant upgrade over the seven quarterbacks to throw passes for Arizona since 2010. Don’t believe me? Check out the table below.
Palmer’s pure passing stats (never mind team record) are on-par with Kurt Warner’s final three seasons in Arizona.
Anyway, here are the biggest camp battles to watch and why you should watch them.
1. Running Back
Candidates: Rashard Mendenhall, Ryan Williams, Stepfan Taylor
Despite head coach Bruce Arians stating in June that Rashard Mendenhall would be his starting running back this season, this will be one battle to watch because of the talent at the position.
Third-year back Ryan Williams is finally healthy, and he will have something to say about who should start Week 1. He admitted he was running scared last season before his injury according to Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic (via USA Today).
Scared of what, you ask?
As soon as I saw [Brandon] Spikes coming to hit me, I cured up and forgot about the ball. It was something where I was trying to protect my leg instead of trying to protect the football. It’s a scary sight being a running back and being scared to run the ball. That’s something that no running back should feel. I was pretty much scared all last year to get the ball in my hands.
And don’t count out rookie sixth-round pick Stepfan Taylor to start.
He may be a long shot, but he is as talented as any back from the draft and is just the kind of back Arians loves using—a patient, three-down-type back who is durable.
Though he is not a speedy runner—he ran just a 4.76 40-yard dash at the combine—Taylor follows blockers well and is a very good pass-protector.
He may be the best pass-blocking back from the draft, and that will play a part in Arians deciding which back to start.
2. No. 2 Cornerback
Candidates: Jerraud Powers, Antoine Cason
This battle will be among the best to watch on a daily basis because there is a chance the loser could end up as the primary dime cornerback. The team traded for Javier Arenas this offseason, and he likely will be the nickel corner, covering smaller, speedy slot receivers like St. Louis Rams rookie Tavon Austin.
As you can see from the table to the right, all three corners are better on the outside than in the slot. But the order flips from slot opposing passer rating to the outside.
Arenas has the drastic edge in slot experience, having played over half his career snaps—and over 200 more downs than the others—from the slot. Powers has the edge over Cason strictly from a production standpoint. He has a touchdown rate (3.2 percent) of nearly half that of Cason (6.2 percent) from the outside.
If Powers and Cason are locked in a close battle at the close of camp, it could come down to something as simple as size. That would go to Cason (6’1/4”, 195), as he has two and a half inches on Powers (5’9-3/4”, 192).
One thing I will say about Powers, though, is that he is very opportunistic when intercepting passes. Many of his picks have been off tipped passes, rather than reading a quarterback and picking him clean. Cason appears to be better at reading quarterbacks and routes, and his athletic ability shows more often, like on this play.
If that’s the case, then everything should play out on its own with Cason making more plays this preseason.
3. Free Safety
Candidates: Yeremiah Bell, Tyrann Mathieu
This is a classic case of the old and the new. Yeremiah Bell is 35-years-old and is entering his 10th NFL season with his third team. Tyrann Mathieu, of course, is the third-round pick from the most recent draft and just turned 21.
On one hand, you have a known commodity at safety—a leader who knows the defense being employed from his time with coordinator Todd Bowles in Miami.
On the other hand, you have an uber-talented rookie who possesses natural ball skills you can’t just teach players.
Therein lies the dilemma.
Do you start the player who has never been one to generate turnovers but is a solid all-around player? Or, do you start the young pup who has never played a down of NFL football, but who has all the tools to make a great NFL safety?
No. 2 Wide Receiver: The battle between Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts may not be as close as you think. While Roberts has been the No. 2 most of the last two seasons for Arizona, Floyd was brought in to be a starter opposite Larry Fitzgerald. It’s not all bad for Roberts, though. Slot receivers in Arians’ offenses are used plenty, so he will have an opportunity to make things happen still.
Left Tackle: Everyone has assumed the left tackle job is Levi Brown’s just because he’s returning from injury and the job was firmly his beforehand. But what if Nate Potter comes out and starts wrecking people across from him during camp and preseason games? He is up to about 315 pounds according to Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds. If he is better at run blocking this preseason, he may start closing the gap between him and Brown.
Left Outside Linebacker: O’Brien Schofield is coming off an injury, Lorenzo Alexander is there but is not a pass-rusher and rookie Alex Okafor needs work on coverage skills. That combination makes this battle wide open, but the early edge may go to Alexander because of his run-stopping ability.
Inside Linebacker: With Daryl Washington out the first month of the season, there are three guys battling for two spots—veterans Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley and rookie Kevin Minter. That is tough enough. But what happens when Washington returns to the lineup? It’s hard to believe he will just surrender his spot and he’s far too good a player to be benched.