Arizona Cardinals: Five players poised for increased roles in 2017

Dec 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Detailed view of an Arizona Cardinals helmet in the hand of a player on the sidelines against the New Orleans Saints at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Detailed view of an Arizona Cardinals helmet in the hand of a player on the sidelines against the New Orleans Saints at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Detailed view of an Arizona Cardinals helmet in the hand of a player on the sidelines against the New Orleans Saints at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Looking ahead toward the 2017 NFL season, these five Arizona Cardinals players appear poised to take on increased roles.

With the Cardinals’ 2016 season in the rearview mirror, the organization is already beginning the work of preparing for the 2017 season. This work will involve resigning some players, moving on from others, and adding new talent through the draft and free agency.

Amidst all of this roster churning, jostling, and reloading, some returning players will be called upon to assume increased responsibility in 2017.

In most cases, this is tied to the standard development curve of a young player. Players who spent their rookie year digesting the playbook and adjusting to the speed of the NFL, often take on larger roles in their second year.

A player’s own development is not the only factor. Veterans retiring, free agents moving on, and the declining play of aging teammates are also a part of the equation.

With this in mind, here are five players who appear poised to take on increased roles in 2017.

Aug 28, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Arizona Cardinals center Evan Boehm (70) during the second half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Houston won 34-24, Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Aug 28, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Arizona Cardinals center Evan Boehm (70) during the second half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Houston won 34-24, Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Boehm

Coming out of the 2016 NFL draft, the fourth-round lineman from Missouri was touted as a solid mid-round pick with starter potential. However, like most first-year players during Coach Bruce Arians’ tenure, Boehm struggled to see playing time through much of his rookie campaign.

Due to a combination of patience, hard work, injuries, and lackluster play by some of his peers, Boehm was called into service late in his rookie season. Though he played guard instead of his natural position of center, Boehm performed well enough to garner praise from Arians, who suggested that Boehm could compete for a starting role in 2017.

With guard Evan Mathis likely retiring, it would appear that the starting spot at right guard is the path of least resistance for Boehm.

If Boehm does earn that coveted starting position, it is still uncertain whether it will be at center or right guard. The competition at center is stiff, as Arians has been a fan of center A.Q. Shipley since their time together with the Indianapolis Colts. Moreover, Shipley grades favorably as a starting center.

With guard Evan Mathis likely retiring, it would appear that the starting spot at right guard is the path of least resistance for Boehm.

Prediction: Boehm does not do enough to become the unquestioned starter at right guard in 2017, but between injuries and the churning that often occurs on the offensive line, he does enough to start at least eight games at guard and/or center.

Dec 20, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Arizona Cardinals nose tackle Josh Mauro (97) runs onto the field for the start of a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. The Cardinals won 40-17. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 20, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Arizona Cardinals nose tackle Josh Mauro (97) runs onto the field for the start of a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. The Cardinals won 40-17. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Mauro

Most casual NFL fans have probably never heard of defensive lineman Josh Mauro. Going undrafted and toiling in the trenches will do that for you. But Cardinals fans are quite familiar with the work of this high-motor, 3-4 defensive end out of Stanford.

Mauro is one of those high-effort, blue-collar players (as odd as it might be to associate a Stanford alumnus with the term “blue-collar”), who seems to consistently make plays. Mauro grades out much better against the run than he does rushing the pass – in fact, among all front seven personnel on the roster, only Markus Golden, Calais Campbell, Kevin Minter, and Deone Bucannon were better against the run than Mauro in 2016.

Mauro is one of those high-effort, blue-collar players (as odd as it might be to associate a Stanford alumnus with the term “blue-collar”), who seems to consistently make plays.

Coaches have noticed Mauro’s effort and propensity for making plays, and he has carved out a steady role in the defensive rotation. As part of this rotation in 2016, he played in 15 games and recorded 32 combined tackles.

Despite his already-significant role on the defensive front, it seems there is a distinct possibility that his involvement could increase further still. The key factor in this equation has less to do with Mauro – though he has certainly done his part to earn increased snaps – and more to do with Calais Campbell’s uncertain future as a member of the Cardinals.

If Campbell moves on, there will be a six foot eight inch void to fill on the defensive line. At six foot six inches, Mauro is not Calais Campbell, but he is also no pushover.

Prediction: Campbell moves on, and Mauro’s snap count increases by at least 100 snaps in 2017.

Aug 12, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals cornerback Harlan Miller (34) against the Oakland Raiders during a preseason game at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Aug 12, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals cornerback Harlan Miller (34) against the Oakland Raiders during a preseason game at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Harlan Miller

The scouting reports on defensive back Harlan Miller coming out of Southeastern Louisiana University, indicated that he was a cornerback who played with a combination of energy, tenacity, and solid technique. Unfortunately, Miller’s draft stock took a significant hit due to a subpar showing at the NFL draft combine – including a disconcerting 4.65 second 40-yard dash.

The Cardinals selected Miller near the end of the sixth round, and he began the regular season on the practice squad. In the NFL, however, opportunity is often a matter of time and attrition. After losing defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu and Tyvon Branch to injuries, the Cardinals promoted Miller to the active roster in week 16.

But the injury bug had not finished making its rounds. Starting safety Tony Jefferson was injured early in the week 16 game against Seattle, and Miller was called upon to play safety. Following the game, Coach Bruce Arians raved about Miller’s performance.

So is it cornerback or safety? The answer is “yes.”

The big question going into 2017, however, is what position will Miller play? He was drafted as a cornerback, but shows promise at safety. So is it cornerback or safety?

The answer is “yes.”

The Cardinals like versatile players on defense. They converted safety Deone Bucannon into a hybrid linebacker/box safety; they utilize Tyrann Mathieu at both nickel corner and safety; and they brought in free agent Tyvon Branch – a safety who played corner in college. A defensive back with Miller’s ability to play both corner and safety is valuable in any NFL defense. In the Cardinals’ scheme, however, players with this skillset are indispensable.

Add to this equation the likelihood that the Cardinals will lose at least one defensive back in free agency, and it appears that Miller has an excellent opportunity to make the 53-man roster in 2017.

Prediction: Miller earns a spot on the roster. Though he does come into the season as a starter at either cornerback or safety, he becomes a regular part of the defensive back rotation, and makes a few starts filling in for injured players.

Apr 28, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Robert Nkemdiche (Mississippi) after being selected by the Arizona Cardinals as the number twenty-nine overall pick in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at Auditorium Theatre. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Apr 28, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Robert Nkemdiche (Mississippi) after being selected by the Arizona Cardinals as the number twenty-nine overall pick in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at Auditorium Theatre. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Nkemdiche

Defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche is the most obvious name on this list. When you are a first round pick, who was one of the top players in your recruiting class, expectations are understandably high.

When you parlay these expectations into a rookie season stat line of one assisted tackle and one pass defended, fans start attaching the word “bust” to your name. While his rookie season was rather disappointing, leveler heads will preach patience – for now.

Nkemdiche is not the first rookie in Coach Arians’ tenure to essentially red shirt his rookie year. Tackle D.J. Humphries followed a similarly invisible rookie campaign, by earning a starting role and performing well in his second season.

Even star running back David Johnson spent the first eleven games of his rookie season as a change-of-pace back – and he might have spent the entire season in that role had Chris Johnson not been injured late in the season. The point is that Coach Arians has historically been hesitant to play rookies if he feels they are not up to speed on the playbook – regardless of how talented they might be.

There has never been a question about his talent. Nkemdiche has a prototypical frame for his position, and has been described as a stronger, faster version of Darnell Dockett. Yikes.

Nkemdiche is just a different dude. He is existential, cerebral, and artistic. He is cut from the same cloth as former NFL players Ricky Williams and Rashard Mendenhall – both of whom were known for their Bohemian tendencies.

The questions with Nkemdiche have always been more about consistency of effort, and off the field concerns. He has admitted that he took plays off at Ole Miss, and this lack of effort is further evidenced by college production that did not match his immense natural talent.

His off the field concerns are not your garden variety character issues – aside from the possession of marijuana charge stemming from an incident involving a fall out of an Atlanta hotel window.

Nkemdiche is just a different dude. He is existential, cerebral, and artistic. He is cut from the same cloth as former NFL players Ricky Williams and Rashard Mendenhall – both of whom were known for their Bohemian tendencies.

With Calais Campbell likely on his way out and Frostee Rucker’s play declining, a starting job appears ripe for the taking.

Prediction: Nkemdiche enters the regular season as a starter. His play is sometimes inconsistent, but he also has flashes that demonstrate how devastatingly disruptive he can be to opposing offenses.

Sep 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals cornerback Brandon Williams (26) defends a pass against Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) during the second half at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals won 40-7. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals cornerback Brandon Williams (26) defends a pass against Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) during the second half at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals won 40-7. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon Williams

It was clear following the 2015 season that the Cardinals needed to find a starting cornerback to play opposite Patrick Peterson. Jerraud Powers was a free agent, Justin Bethel had not shown enough to convince coaches that he was the long-term answer, and in keeping with his modus operandi, General Manager Steve Keim did not doll out big money for a free agent at the position.

In order to address this need, Keim drafted two cornerbacks – Brandon Williams in the third round, and Harlan Miller in the sixth round – and traded a conditional pick for Marcus Cooper. Cooper ended up starting most of the season, but was utterly inconsistent – making big plays, and giving up more of the same.

Going into 2017, it is clear that the Cardinals are still in need of a quality starter at the position. The question is, how will the Cardinal address the issue? History suggests that Keim will not overpay for a top free agent corner. It is possible one might be signed later in free agency, similar to the signing of Antonio Cromartie in 2014, but there is no guarantee that a quality option will be available at that juncture.

Though it is possible the Cardinals could draft a cornerback in the early rounds of the 2017 NFL draft, it seems more likely that they will look to find a viable starter among their existing options – something Coach Bruce Arians alluded to at the end of the season. Under this scenario, it is entirely possible that Brandon Williams could end up earning the starting job.

Coming out of Texas A&M University, Williams was the epitome of a project player. He has prototypical size and speed, but had played only one season at corner after making the transition from running back. Williams managed to see some playing during the 2016 campaign, but his lack of experience was evident.

His raw tools are unquestionable. The upper-bound of Williams’ potential is enough to make a scout salivate. The question with Williams is, how steep is the learning curve? If and when Williams puts it all together, the Cardinals could have themselves a solid starting cornerback.

Prediction: Williams’ potential absolutely fascinates me, so I am making my boldest prediction here. Williams capitalizes on the experience he gained in 2016, and continues to improve through training camp. Williams surprises a lot of people by winning the starting job, and holds onto it for years to come.

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