Cardinals' new-look safety corps has much to prove
MAY 15, 2013 3:00p ET
TEMPE, Ariz. – Rampant roster turnover often accompanies coaching changes in the NFL. Determined to establish a new tone and philosophy, new coaches typically prefer to bring in their own guys to alter the chemistry of a locker room and find players who better fit their schemes.
“It’s the nature of the business,” Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson said. “The door is always revolving with new guys coming in while older guys are leaving.”
The Cardinals have clearly experienced such a shift, with 48 new faces currently dotting the 90-man roster. But the they didn’t expect all of this turnover, particularly not in the secondary.
While age and diminishing skills led Arizona to cut ties with franchise icon Adrian Wilson, the team wanted to re-sign cornerback Greg Toler, who signed a lucrative free-agent deal with Indianapolis instead. The Cards also offered free safety Kerry Rhodes a contract extension that would have made his deal more manageable against the cap.
Rhodes refused and was released.
That left a gaping hole at the safety position. Not only did the Cards lose both starters, they lost the unquestioned leader of the defense in Wilson and they lost a Pro Bowl-caliber performer with a penchant for big plays in Rhodes. Last season, Pro Football Focus graded him as the fourth-best safety in the league.
So what’s left? The Cards signed veteran Yeremiah Bell to a one-year, $905,000 contract with $555,000 guaranteed. They drafted Tyrann Mathieu, baggage and all, and they re-signed Johnson to a three-year deal. Johnson replaced Wilson in nickel situations last season and gradually saw his role increase over the second half of the year, when he had interceptions against Atlanta and Detroit.
“All our guys back there have a chance,” coach Bruce Arians said Tuesday. “Yeremiah Bell is a proven, veteran pro, and Rashad has played extremely well. Tyrann is a young, dynamic player I think can be an impact player.
“I am pleased with the athleticism back there right now.”
But will the Cards get the same sort of playmaking ability they got from Wilson and Rhodes?
You’d expect Arians to sing Bell’s praises, and he may prove to be a good short-term fit in Todd Bowles’ defensive system. In his career, Bell, 35, has combined to make 651 tackles and has picked off six passes to go along with 12 sacks. He made the Pro Bowl in 2009, when he played for Bowles in Miami.
"He's a guy with experience as a starter who has been very productive,” Arians said recently. “He's also been incredibly durable, starting every game but one over the last five years.”
But he came cheap in free agency for a reason. He's got some wear on his body, and Pro Football Focus graded him out as the league’s 54th-best safety last year. When he signed with Arizona, his reasoning was simple.
"When I visited here, they made me feel like I would be welcomed here,” he told Newsday. “With the plethora of young defensive backs on the market, I felt I needed to get somewhere."
If Bell falters, the Cards are hoping Mathieu can step in and exhibit the same playmaking ability that likely would have made him a first-round draft pick if not for his off-field troubles and lengthy absence from football.
But the most intriguing player to watch may be Johnson, who first got his feet wet a couple seasons ago when Rhodes broke a bone in his foot.
“That’s the time when my confidence really was built -- when Kerry was hurt and I was able to start eight or nine games,” he said. “I was able to grow all that time and learn, with Adrian coaching me up.”
“Last year, I was just ready to go, ready to get that chance.”
The chance wasn’t what Johnson envisioned, but it didn’t daunt him.
“My attitude was: Don’t just accept the role that they give you; train for the role that you want to be in, and eventually you’ll get into it,” said Johnson, who had 20 tackles, two picks, two passes defensed and a fumble recovery last season. “The step I took last year was approaching every game like I was the starter by taking the time in the film room, even though I knew I was going to start out only playing third down and special teams.”
Johnson knows that more than a few analysts doubt he can become the kind of play-maker Wilson was in his storied career, the kind of impact player the fan base and organization have come to expect from that position. But he isn’t viewing his future through that lens.
“I can’t go in and say I’m going to be Adrian Wilson,” he said. “I’m going to be Rashad Johnson -- a guy who plays smart and understands the game and knows when to take his chances.
“I don’t have to hold up the legacy that he or Kerry left. There are 10 other guys on the field, and we’re going to rally to the ball and play together. If we’re winning games, my legacy doesn’t matter.”
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