Predicting the Winner of the Arizona Cardinals' Biggest Training Camp Battles
July 25 marks the beginning of Arizona Cardinals training camp 2014, which signals the official start of some sizeable camp battles that should be fun to watch.
Keep in mind if you visit University of Phoenix Stadium for one of Arizona’s 18 open-to-the-public practices over the next month that just because you see a player outperforming another does not mean he will win the starting spot for his respective position.
That very situation played out last August.
Special teams ace and cornerback Justin Bethel showed well at times, making plays on the ball in coverage and providing solid run defense. But he did not play a single snap on defense during the regular season, instead making the Pro Bowl as the NFC’s special teamer.
He was not ready to be a defender because former Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton had him learning three different positions, which overwhelmed him—it set him back a full year, to be honest.
But for the most part, if a player is blowing everyone away, he will wind up on the field on Sundays, likely in a starting role.
Here are some of the biggest positional battles to watch at Cards camp.
Matchup: Bobby Massie vs. Bradley Sowell vs. Nate Potter
A year ago, it was Bobby Massie’s job to lose, and all he did was lose it a week into camp. Free-agent signee Eric Winston stepped in and started every game in 2013, with mixed results.
This camp begins the same as last: Right tackle is Massie’s to lose. There is no Winston breathing down his neck, however. And unless Massie stinks to high heaven and Bradley Sowell has a sudden showing of greatness, Massie should emerge the victor.
Massie’s problems with the mental side of the game are well-documented. He didn’t become a viable option at right tackle his rookie season until he saw how horribly he had performed and put forth the effort to change.
He has the physical talent to be very good, but it’s all up to him. If he has dedicated himself to being a professional right tackle, quarterback Carson Palmer should have nothing to worry about when facing teams with top pass-rushers.
Nate Potter may be the smartest of the three tackles, but he struggles physically. In the insanely physical NFC West, that’s a problem.
Projected Winner: Bobby Massie
Matchup: Jerraud Powers vs. Justin Bethel
Right now, Bethel is a long shot to win the nickel cornerback job out of camp. He has a sizeable hill to climb in the form of Jerraud Powers and—when cleared to play—Tyrann Mathieu.
Technically, Mathieu is Arizona’s starting free safety, but 68.1 percent (329 of 483) of his coverage snaps last season came from the slot, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). It’s the reason the stats giant listed him as a cornerback in 2013, and, as a result, PFF ranked him as the third-best corner, despite missing the final three games with torn ligaments in his knee.
Head coach Bruce Arians says Bethel has the potential to be great, according to Darren Urban of the team’s official website:
He can be our best. He’s got all the skill level to be as good as there is, including Patrick [Peterson]. This kid has an unbelievable skill set. …
We talked to him about counting on him. He’s got the ability to be a top flight corner.
That’s very high praise considering Patrick Peterson is a top-three cornerback already.
Powers struggled in 2013, and quarterbacks picked on him quite a bit. In fact, he was the most-targeted (122 targets) corner and allowed the most receptions (73) in the NFL last season. He also struggled bringing down ball-carriers on a regular basis, missing seven tackles. For comparison, Peterson missed five tackles all season.
Mathieu missed only three.
Until doctors clear Mathieu to play, it’s a two-man battle. Bethel and Powers will go at it throughout camp, but unless Bethel blows coaches away, Powers will probably win the job. Bethel should get plenty of playing time in the dime package, however, and he could eventually work himself into the nickel package.
In reality, though, the winner out of camp is merely a placeholder until Mathieu returns.
Projected Winner: Jerraud Powers
Matchup: Earl Watford vs. Paul Fanaika
Last year Paul Fanaika started all 16 games for the Cardinals. In fact, he and center Lyle Sendlein were the only two offensive players to take part in every play throughout the season.
That’s not to say Fanaika was good, because he wasn’t. He was simply a placeholder. Top-10 pick, left guard Jonathan Cooper, broke his leg, forcing Daryn Colledge to move from his new right guard post to fill in.
Right guard was an issue all season. Among guards, only Todd Herremans (48) of the Philadelphia Eagles allowed more pressures than Fanaika (46) did, and only two allowed more sacks than his seven, according to PFF.
A 2013 fourth-round pick, Earl Watford is believed by some to be a “poor-man’s” Cooper, displaying similar athleticism and physical makeup as the former All-American out of North Carolina.
But Watford played at tiny James Madison and needed a year to get acclimated to the NFL game. Now that he appears to be ready, expect him to win the job out of camp, adding to the athleticism at guard and opening up the possibilities for Arians' run game.
Projected Winner: Earl Watford
Left Outside Linebacker
Matchup: Matt Shaughnessy vs. Sam Acho
Sam Acho had started 28 of the past 29 games at outside linebacker for the Cardinals from 2011 through Week 3 of the 2013 season. Then he broke his left leg when John Abraham fell on it during that ugly Week 3 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Free-agent signee Matt Shaughnessy stepped in and played nobly the rest of the season. While he had trouble as a pass-rusher, he was among the best outside linebackers in the league against the run—neither account is surprising; he’s notoriously stout against the run but has always struggled as a pass-rusher.
You’d think both Acho and Shaughnessy would be on the field plenty this season. While Shaughnessy is the master run defender, Acho excels in coverage and is an up-and-coming edge-rusher. Depending on what coordinator Todd Bowles wants from his defense, he could have either on the field at any given time throughout the season.
Shaughnessy signed a one-year deal last offseason, but his play convinced general manager Steve Keim to re-sign him to a two-year, $4.4 million contract that could be worth as much as $6.6 million if he hits his incentives.
Acho is on the final year of his four-year rookie contract and will make $645,000 this season. Young defenders in a contract year have extra motivation to earn that next big payday, so Acho could be in for a big year.
We’ll see how that works out. This could be left-outside-linebacker-by-committee most of the season, unless one or the other looks like a Pro Bowler early on.
Projected Winner: Sam Acho
Matchup: Ted Ginn Jr. vs. John Brown
When the Cardinals signed Ted Ginn to a three-year, $9.75 million free-agent deal early this offseason, we assumed no one would challenge him for the No. 3 receiver spot. Then rookie third-round pick John Brown showed up to minicamp and showed off his great hands, route-running and speed.
Now it’s not so clear which receiver will serve as Arians’ go-to slot guy.
Logic still says Ginn will win the job based on the deal he signed—$3.25 million average annual income makes him an expensive fourth receiver. But if Brown puts on a show at training camp, outperforming Ginn and wowing the crowd, should Arians consider making him the team’s third option behind Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd?
Because as Herm Edwards famously stated, “You play to win the game.” If coaches believe Brown gives the Cardinals a better chance to win than Ginn does, you better believe Brown should start.
With that said, Brown has a lot to learn about the NFL, and impressing coaches and onlookers during minicamp is not as good as it sounds.
No pads and no defense make his rookie offseason difficult to judge. It’s good that he has reportedly picked up the playbook quickly, but things could change when pads go on. A lot will be sorted over the next month. This battle is hot, so watch closely.
Don’t blink, though, because they’re both fast enough that you’ll miss something if you do.
Projected Winner: Ted Ginn Jr.
All contract info provided by Rotoworld.