Cardinals secondary has potential for greatness

Two Pro Bowl cornerbacks, a budding free safety star and a hard-hitting first-round pick create cause for optimism.

Rookie safety Deone Bucannon lines up across from Zach Bauman during organized activities at the Cards' training facility in Tempe.

Ross Franklin / AP

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Antonio Cromartie can't decide what excites him most about Arizona's young and talented secondary.

"Everything," the Cardinals' prized free-agent acquisition said.

Arizona enters the 2014 season with a pair of cornerbacks who have been to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons, a budding free safety star in Tyrann Mathieu, a hard-hitting first-round pick at strong safety in Deone Bucannon, veteran depth in cornerback Jerraud Powers and safety Rashad Johnson and youthful depth in Justin Bethel and Tony Jefferson.

There is potential for greatness in a division where Seattle sets the standard for secondary greatness. But there is also a caveat inherent in that potential.

"If you take just the word potential from Webster's dictionary, it's really unproven ability," Cardinals defensive backs coach Nick Rapone said. "What I believe we do have is a good mixture of veteran players and young players. But can the older players play up to the level of their expectations? Can Ty continue to climb as a player? Can Tony take the next step? Can Powers continue to bring that veteran presence? Can Bucannon catch on early enough to be a factor?" 

The Cardinals staff is getting an extended look at all those pieces (and others) in OTAs, which opened on Tuesday at the team's Tempe complex. Right now, the idea is to get familiar with one another, learn the playbook, learn expectations, assess the depth and build a little chemistry before the true position battles and season preparations begin at training camp in late July.

But there are questions beyond those Rapone outlined. Will Mathieu be healthy enough to open the regular season after suffering torn ACL and LCL ligaments Dec. 8 against the Rams? 

Will Cromartie's balky hip be an issue?

Will Peterson's contract talks become a distraction that leads him to avoid the media, as he did Tuesday when asked if he had a few minutes to talk. Can Bethel take the giant step from special teams standout to defensive rotation regular?

The coming months will sort out some of these questions, but on paper the Cardinals like their secondary depth now. And they like what Cromartie's presence adds opposite Peterson



Starters: Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie
Backups: Jerraud Powers, Bryan McCann, Justin Bethel
In the mix: Teddy Williams, LeQuan Lewis, Eddie Whitley, Brandon Sermons, Todd Washington


Projected starter: *Tyrann Mathieu
Backup: Rashad Johnson
In the mix: Anthony Walters


Projected starter: Deone Bucannon
Backups: Tony Jefferson
In the mix: Curtis Taylor, Orhian Johnson

* -- rehabbing from injury 

Kim Klement / USA Today Sports

"We're basically a man-to-man team so it gives us a taller, bigger corner and let's face it, it gives us a pretty darn good corner," Rapone said. "Now you've got two big corners, and we have a 6-1, 217-pound strong safety we just drafted. You have accomplished, physically, trying to get taller and stronger to go against the receivers we're facing."

At 30, Cromartie isn't old by most standards, but "in football years it is," he said, and "I'm the oldest in the group for the first time."

While he believes there is plenty of leadership already in place, Cromartie hopes he can bring something more to the table.

"You've got a lot of young guys that are willing to learn," he said. "It's all about us coming and gelling together. As a unit, we've got to make sure that we are all on the same page because when we're all on the same page we play a lot faster."

Rapone understands that his players may view Seattle as the gold standard, but he doesn't want them to get into a battle of one-upsmanship, and he doesn't want the perception to exist that Seattle is the model for Arizona. 

"I don't want to say this wrong, but we're not copying them, trying to reach their standard," he said. "We were pretty stout last season. You're not No. 1 against the run and No. 6 overall by not having your own swagger. 

"Every NFL team has to get better each and every year. We are aware that in our division there is a Super Bowl team, but we're the Arizona Cardinals, and we're proud of that."

Still, while Rapone believes his secondary's depth and versatility create the possibility of greater things in 2014, he cautioned that it is "way too early" to form judgments. 

"Until you get into the playoffs you always have something to prove, right?" he asked rhetorically. "Our guys take pride being in this division. You'd better be one tough hombre to play in the NFC West, but it's not about just being tough, it’s about coming out on top."

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