Five Names Arizona Cardinals Fans Need to Know in 2017

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals will need some players to step up in 2017

The 2016 NFL seasons is officially over. As the attention of the Arizona Cardinals, and its fans, turns toward the 2017 season, it’s time to look ahead to what might be in store. Free agency and the NFL Draft will both play a big part in shaping the roster for next season, but there are some players already on the roster that might have a say in the future.

The Cardinals have played a lot of veterans at key spots over the past few years. Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald have led the way, but guys like Calais Campbell, AQ Shipley, and Frostee Rucker were all a big part of Arizona’s game plan.

With not only those names, but several others, entering free agency, there is expected to be a lot of turnover with the roster. The team will likely look a bit different in many of the starting spots on both sides of the ball.

There will be contributions from several new starters next season, and some of them will be players who weren’t with the team last year. However, here are five guys who were Cardinals in 2016, and who fans should familiarize themselves with in preparation for 2017.

Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

JJ Nelson closed the 2016 season with strong play at wide receiver

One of the positions in transition for the Arizona Cardinals this off-season is at wide receiver. Larry Fitzgerald is returning, much to fans delight, but there are question marks after that. Injuries and off the field mistakes decimated the receiving corps, and it was JJ Nelson who stepped up and made plays down the stretch.

Nelson was drafted in the fifth round of the draft in 2015, mostly due to his blazing speed. His slight frame, however, meant that he was probably just a specialty player in the NFL. His rookie year went exactly that direction. He recorded just 11 catches, but had a 27.2 yards per catch average.

The beginning of 2016 was more of the same. Then, things changed. With Michael Floyd released, and injuries hampering others, Nelson got his shot, and responded. He had a big game against the Carolina Panthers, with eight catches and a touchdown, then scored five times in a four game stretch at the end of the season.

It seems inevitable that the Cardinals will add to the receiving corps in this year’s draft. Nelson is still small, and not likely to be on the field in large doses. He did play well enough to earn a bigger role in 2017, and could make more big plays in the desert.

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Boehm might be the starting center in his second season as a pro

Evan Boehm was a highly regarded center coming out of the University of Missouri. He was a four year starter lauded for his toughness. His strength was a big selling point, and proved to be a smart player as well. Other limitations kept him out of the first three rounds, but the Cardinals took him in round four.

Drafted to be the eventual starter at Center, he found himself behind AQ Shipley in year one. However, he proved his value at the end of the season, stepping in at right guard and doing a solid job, even against great players like Michael Bennett and Aaron Donald.

With Shipley entering free agency this off-season, the center position is unsettled. Head coach Bruce Arians has said he’d like to bring his veteran snapper back, it’s no sure thing. Boehm is standing by, ready if needed.

If Shipley does return, it doesn’t mean Boehm won’t get plenty of playing time. The Cardinals could also use a starter at right guard, and Boehm did gain valuable experience there. Either way, there is a very good chance that he plays early and often in his second season in the NFL.

Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Troy Niklas could finally get a start to a promising career

Tight end is another position with big question marks going into the off-season. Jermaine Gresham and Darren Fells held it down in 2016, but both players are free agents. Ifeanyi Momah was next in receptions by a tight end, and he had two catches. The return of Troy Niklas would help.

A former second round draft pick, Niklas was expected to stabilize the tight end spot in Arizona for years. A lot of projection was involved in scouting him, since he was converted from defense, but his athletic profile made him an exciting prospect.

His professional career hasn’t gone the way he, or the Cardinals, would have liked. An injury shortened his rookie season, and though he played in all 16 games in 2015, he didn’t contribute much. This past season was again ended by injury. In three seasons, he has just eight receptions for 71 yards.

With Gresham and Fells both potentially gone, Niklas will get a shot. Even if one of them returns, they’ll need a second, solid player there. Niklas has talent, but hasn’t been able to show it so far. He might be able to do so in 2017.

Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon Williams will get another chance to claim a starting cornerback spot

The Cardinals entered 2016 looking for an answer at their cornerback spot across from Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson. One of the options was rookie Brandon Williams, a third round pick from Texas A&M. Like Niklas, Williams was new to his position, having been a running back for most of his college career.

Williams is a terrific athlete, and has a tremendous upside, but it was clear time would be needed to see a return on the investment. The Cardinals gave him a shot at the starting job, but after three starts, it was clear he wasn’t ready.

A lot of mock drafts are predicting that Arizona will draft a cornerback with their first round pick this year. It’s almost certain that they’ll address the position in one way or another, but Williams will get a chance to compete for a spot in the rotation.

Williams continued to see the field throughout the 2016 season, even after losing his starting spot. His athletic upside is still tantalizing, and he’s sure to work hard to earn his shot. He’ll be in the mix in 2017, and should get time on the field, even if it’s not as a starter.

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Harlan Miller was almost an afterthought, but showed a lot at the end of the season

The Cardinals addressed the secondary in round three of the 2016 NFL Draft, by taking Brandon Williams in round three, and Marqui Christian in round five. However, sixth round pick Harlan Miller made people take notice late in the season.

Miller found himself on the practice squad after the preseason, and it seemed he’d have to try again next season. Late in the season, however, he was called on to start, as injuries at safety piled up. Drafted as a cornerback, it was not a natural spot for him, but he held up well, recording five tackles and an interception that he returned 52 yards.

His length and ability to tackle means he has a lot of upside, and Miller might wind up as the best defensive back they drafted last year. He’s aggressive, and his ball skills are excellent, and though he isn’t a speedster, he plays quick enough.

The Cardinals have free agency issues at safety, along with several other spots. Miller’s versatility may help him stick with the team. He can clearly play safety, but could backup cornerback as well, making him a potentially valuable player on defense.

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