Tyrann Mathieu was spectacular in his professional debut Friday at Green Bay.
Halfway through training camp, the Arizona Cardinals have gone through two weeks of practices and a preseason game. Some key positional battles have taken on lives of their own, and it will be fun to watch them unfold through two more weeks of practice and three more games.
There were both positive and negative surprises during the preseason-opening shutout victory of the Green Bay Packers.
One thing not surprising to many was that quarterback Carson Palmer was better than last year’s quarterbacks were. While it’s only one preseason game, and he played but two series and threw six passes, his performance was a step in the right direction for the offense.
Here is a look at some key positional battles halfway through Cards camp.
The offensive line did a great job protecting Carson Palmer and the Cardinals QBs Friday. Run blocking was a different story.
The starting right tackle spot was given to Eric Winston just a week after signing a one-year, $2 million contract just before training camp began. The seven-year veteran looked good during camp, providing solid pass protection for Palmer throughout.
That continued last Friday at Lambeau Field, as Palmer had a clean pocket his entire time on the field.
But Winston struggled to open running lanes for Alfonso Smith, who started in place of Rashard Mendenhall. The entire first-string offensive line struggled to run block, but Winston had opportunities to provide the lane through which Smith could have burst for big chunks, and he failed to do so.
Bobby Massie performed capably as a pass-protector, but it was his run blocking that set him apart from Winston in Green Bay.
On one play in particular, all Smith needed to break off a big gain and possible 14-yard touchdown was a block from rookie tight end D.C. Jefferson. Massie had sealed off his side of the lane, so Jefferson sealing his side would have created a massive hole. The rookie missed his man, and Smith ultimately was stopped for a short gain.
But Massie did his part, completely taking defensive end Mike Daniels out of the play.
Expect Winston to remain the starter for Week 2 of the preseason (at home against the Dallas Cowboys), but another performance from the two as we saw in Green Bay could give Massie the edge come Week 3.
Both Jasper Brinkley and rookie Kevin Minter have enjoyed solid training camp performances up to now. Both played well at times against Green Bay as well, so this could be among the more exciting positional battles to watch.
Brinkley played a good game Friday, notching four total tackles in 17 snaps. He torpedoed through the offensive line on one play and brought down Packers running back James Starks for a loss of a yard.
Minter played 31 snaps, recorded three total tackles and was around the ball a lot. His closing speed has been a positive throughout camp, and while he should not be considered a speedy linebacker, he gets to where he needs to be more often than not—especially while defending the run.
As of now, Brinkley likely has the edge because of experience and performance, but the wealth of talent at inside linebacker is a good problem to have.
The battle for the No. 4 wide receiver spot was kicked up a notch in Green Bay. Charles Hawkins recorded four receptions for 92 yards (23.0 yards per catch), and Jaron Brown had five receptions for 46 yards (9.2 YPC) and a touchdown.
Brown also converted multiple third downs on deliveries from backup quarterback Drew Stanton.
The difference so far, much like the first positional battle, might be run blocking. Brown uses his 6’2” frame well to shield corners, and he was the top-rated receiver on the team in pass protection against the Packers, according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required).
These two undrafted rookies top the list of receivers vying for the No. 4 receiver spot. That’s not necessarily a good thing, and there could be some movement after a round or two of cuts are made around the NFL.
Nonetheless, Brown and Hawkins have shown up so far, and it will be interesting to see who pulls ahead leading up to the Cowboys game.
No matter where he is played, rookie Tyrann Mathieu has made things happen with unreal regularity. Multiple interceptions, passes defended, tackles and would-be sacks during camp translated to Friday’s game as Mathieu proved to be the best defensive player on the field for Arizona.
He sacked Packers backup quarterback Graham Harrell from the slot, where he played most of his snaps. He also knocked a pass out of a receiver's hands as he tried to come down with it and had a fancy punt return that should have amounted to nothing but instead went for 24 yards.
It isn’t that the others—Yeremiah Bell, Rashad Johnson, any dime cornerback—have played poorly. But Bruce Arians and coordinator Todd Bowles keeping Mathieu off the field after proclaiming turnovers are their No. 1 priority is a contradiction in and of itself.
He was just a tiny little murderer in the secondary, destroying people twice his size, ripping the ball out, picking off passes, and then when the time came, running through defenses on punt returns.
Is that quote from Grantland’s Andrew Sharp a description of Mathieu’s performance through two weeks of his first NFL camp (after a full year with no football, mind you), or is it a description of his time at Louisiana State?
It is part of a wonderfully insightful yet tear-jerking piece on Mathieu’s life and describes his time at LSU. But it is interchangeable in that he’s been the exact same player at Cards camp as he was while finishing as a Heisman Trophy finalist his sophomore season.
There is a spot on the roster for Mathieu, and there should be a spot among the starting secondary in Bowles’ defense.
He’s too good not to play every down.
It’s sad to watch an NFL career plummet before it gets going, but Ryan Williams is doing this to himself. If he cannot play through a bit of knee soreness, he may find himself out of work very soon.
There’s Smith, who has had a great camp to this point. He carried 12 times for just 21 yards (1.8 yards per carry) in Green Bay, but much of his running woes fell on the offensive line not creating lanes for him.
Then, there’s rookie Stepfan Taylor, who has impressed at camp throughout and seems to be the riser in this situation. He carried 20 times for 64 yards (3.2 YPC) against the Packers, and though he is not a burner, he’s very patient and has unbelievable vision.
Taylor also was the team’s best pass-blocker at Lambeau, earning a plus-0.8 rating from PFF.
Andre Ellington sat out Friday’s game, but he had shown an ability to squeeze through small running lanes and come out the other side unscathed during practice. He left practice last Tuesday with an apparent head injury and missed Wednesday’s session as well as the trip to Green Bay.
Williams’ fate is up to him. If healthy, he can be a productive three-down back in the NFL. But will he ever be healthy?
Is any NFL running back ever truly “healthy?”
Dings and bruises happen weekly in the trenches, and you have to be tough enough to play through them. Say what you will about former Cardinals back Beanie Wells, but he rushed for 1,047 yards two years ago on an injured knee that required surgery following the season.
At some point, Williams will have to decide how much pain he is willing to bear. His pain tolerance is not known, nor is the amount of actual pain he’s feeling in the knee.
But if he assumes he can ride the bench during the preseason as a precaution and be ready for the regular season, he is sorely mistaken. Doing so could leave him unemployed.