Breaking Down Arizona Cardinals' 6 Biggest Training Camp Projects
Arizona Cardinals training camp at University of Phoenix Stadium begins in less than two weeks. When it does, you might notice some young talent on the team that needs years of coaching and learning before they contribute.
This is not about them. This is about those who will fight for starting or rotational roles this season, and about those who could take up to a year to contribute but will make the roster nonetheless.
A good example of a Cardinals’ former training camp project is right tackle Bobby Massie. As a fourth-round pick in 2012, Massie needed some polishing before earning playing time. But as fate would have it, slated starter Jeremy Bridges tore ligaments in his thumb, forcing the veteran to season-ending IR.
Massie was thrust into the starting lineup too early, and his play showed it.
The former Ole Miss Rebel allowed the most sacks among tackles that season despite going the final eight games allowing none, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Who are Arizona’s training camp projects this season? Let’s go through the list.
Logan Thomas, Quarterback
We’ll get the biggest duh project out of the way now because Logan Thomas came to mind for most of you upon reading the title of this piece. Fourth-round picks generally are considered projects, and Thomas certainly fits the bill.
He could have the most upside given the situation he’s been given, however, and that should have fans excited about the future of the Cardinals offense. If Thomas develops into a solid starter—not even a star, just a middle-of-the-pack starting quarterback—the team could be set up for success down the road.
Having a great quarterback helps teams get to the playoffs every year, but unless they have the great defense to match it, there’s a good chance they won’t be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February.
Ask Russell Wilson how vital a great defense is to a team. He was not stellar by any stretch in 2013; but he had the best defense in the league and a solid rushing attack, so therefore Mr. Wilson is a Super Bowl champion in just his second NFL season.
Anyway, the point here is that yes, Thomas is a project and won’t play a snap in 2014 barring injuries to multiple Cardinals’ quarterbacks. And yes, he might have a long way to go before being ready to lead an NFL huddle.
But once he is ready, he doesn’t need to be a star (though he has the tools to be if he can figure out this accuracy thing). He just needs to be average most of the time and clutch when his team needs a drive.
That’s not too much to ask, is it?
John Brown, Wide Receiver
By this point in the offseason, everyone should be aware of who John Brown is and why general manager Steve Keim made him a third-round pick in May. In case you’re new here or have been under a rock since January, Brown is the ultra-quick, lightning-fast slot receiver head coach Bruce Arians wants for his offense.
Brown is nearly identical to Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton (seriously, check out their measurables). They were even drafted in nearly identical spots in their respective drafts—Hilton 92nd overall in 2012 and Brown 91st overall in 2014.
While everyone with an imagination sees Brown as a Hilton clone who will surely come in as a rookie and blow the top off defenses, the fact is that he’s a rookie. Despite making very few mistakes during offseason workouts, he comes from a small school with small opponents and could take some time to acclimate to the size and speed of NFL corners.
He probably won’t jump right in as the starting slot receiver and start hauling in go route touchdowns from Carson Palmer. For now, that job belongs to free-agent signee Ted Ginn Jr. and could be even deep into the 2014 season.
Bobby Massie, Right Tackle
As noted at the outset, Massie was a project as a rookie in 2012. Here’s the thing about projects, though: Some take longer than others to complete. After entering Cards camp 2013 as the projected starter at right tackle, Massie quickly found himself out of favor with Arians and was replaced in the lineup by Eric Winston, who signed the day after camp began and a week later took over for the struggling offensive lineman.
Massie would take part in only 57 offensive plays all season, allowing two quarterback pressures overall and no sacks, according to PFF.
All signs this offseason point to Massie earning the starting spot he lost a calendar year ago; at least, that’s the vibe Arians is giving off, as told to Kent Somers of AZCentral.com in early June:
We’re going to keep throwing [Bobby Massie, Nate Potter and Bradley Sowell] out there and see who comes out on top. Bobby has done very well, Bradley is inconsistent and Nate is probably the smartest of the three. It’s just a matter of physically holding up. Again, you wait for pads for all that stuff.
While Potter has the mental side of the game down and appears to struggle with the physical part, it’s just the opposite for Massie. He looks the part of an NFL right tackle. He’s strong enough to hold off the best pass-rushers in the league, yet the mental side of the game bit him again and again early in his rookie season.
It wasn’t until he saw his own pressure stats from PFF that he realized he needed to change the way he conducted himself as an NFL player. ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss, then of AZCardinals.com, covered the story well in November 2012, relaying to readers what Massie had seen on the website:
"Only one other tackle in the NFL was ranked lower than him, and it happened to be a teammate. The number of sacks Massie allowed [to that point] was the highest in the league."
Focusing on improving technique—specifically his kick-slide, as Weinfuss reported—Massie became one of the better tackles in the league over the final eight games of the 2012 season. But after being usurped by Winston and essentially sitting out a year, he still has a lot to prove.
He has the talent, but he’s still a project because no one knows how he will perform once the pads go on.
Kareem Martin, Defensive End
The other third-round pick by the Cardinals this draft, Kareem Martin will be a hybrid member of the front seven as a rookie. He will play some 3-4 defensive end, probably some 4-3 end when Todd Bowles goes to it, some 3-4 outside linebacker/pass-rusher and perhaps a little inside linebacker—that’s how versatile he is.
He could eventually be a Calais Campbell clone as a 3-4 end. But until then, he may not have a true position.
Martin is a natural pass-rusher with the strength to bully offensive linemen in pursuit of the quarterback. Where he needs development, however, is in stopping the run.
Cardinals DE Kareem Martin has a wide array of pass-rush moves and can rush from multiple places along the front. He should earn some reps.— Jordan Plocher (@StarvingScout) July 14, 2014
Cardinals DE Kareem Martin needs to become a more consistent run defender. He will play with his pads too high at times & get washed inside.— Jordan Plocher (@StarvingScout) July 14, 2014
He is by no means a finished product. That’s why, while he will earn snaps this season and should have some success as a pass-rusher, he is a project this camp season.
Kevin Minter, Inside Linebacker
Kevin Minter’s spot in the 2014 starting lineup was pretty secure once Karlos Dansby signed a free-agent deal with the Cleveland Browns; it was set in stone when commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Daryl Washington for at least a full season just three weeks after the NFL draft.
Arizona did not select an inside linebacker during the draft, instead choosing to go all-in on Minter and provide veteran leadership around him. Keim signed veteran Larry Foote this offseason as inside linebacker depth, but also to be a mentor of sorts for Minter.
The second-year linebacker will learn from Foote how to be a leader. No one expected Minter to be thrust into the limelight for the duration of the 2014 season; at most, we were expecting four to six games while Washington was suspended.
With Washington on the shelf this season and probably done in Cardinal Red altogether, it’s Minter’s defense for the foreseeable future.
He is a thumper and a sure tackler, but he is not as rangy as Washington—or even Dansby—is. That means he will have to be in the right place at the right time on every play, because a misstep could lead to a wide-open running or passing lane, which is problematic.
New strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris and his crew have likely worked with Minter on ways to improve his short-area quickness. That will help, but getting faster is not an overnight occurrence.
The first test will be training camp. The next will be preseason games. Hopefully Minter is ready, because teams exploit weaknesses—especially good teams like San Francisco and Seattle.
Justin Bethel, Cornerback
In only two seasons, Justin Bethel has become one of the best special teams players in the NFL; he earned a visit to Hawaii as the NFC’s special teams Pro Bowler following the 2013 season for his outstanding work as a gunner.
But Coach Arians believes he could be the best cornerback on the roster despite his having played just 13 snaps on defense in two years (all as a rookie in 2012), according to Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds.
"He’s got all the skill level to be as good as there is, including Patrick (Peterson) and all those other guys that are mentioned. This kid has an unbelievable skillset and he’s starting to get [his] hands on more balls than anybody else out there."
He will have a chance to play cornerback for coordinator Bowles’ defense. Whether he earns playing time on Sundays this fall depends on his development in coverage, but he could probably be a better dime cornerback than Jerraud Powers based on athleticism and size. He’s one of the most athletic players on the team, and combined with his length, you can see why Arians is excited.
But he’s still learning. He was drafted as a cornerback, but the former coaching staff moved him to safety before the new regime decided he would again be a cornerback. Had Ray Horton and Co. kept him at cornerback, he may have been ready this season to make a big impact for Bowles’ defense.
Instead, we don’t know how it will go for him, and therefore he’s a project.