Top position battles at Cardinals camp
NFL coaches like to preach competition at every position in an effort to drive players to greater heights. It’s also a mantra for new coaches like Bruce Arians, who arrive without preconceived notions about existing players’ roles and abilities.
The rhetoric sounds impressive and very few players enjoy unquestioned job security in the NFL, but in reality, there are only a handful of starting positions truly up for grabs as the Cardinals open training camp on Friday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
Barring injuries, we know Carson Palmer is the starting quarterback. We know Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams will carry the load in the backfield. Although the split in carries will depend on performance and health. We know Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd will be the top three receivers, while Rob Housler and Jeff King get heavy reps at tight end.
In all probability, Levi Brown will start at left tackle, rookie Jonathan Cooper will start at left guard (once he signs), Lyle Sendlein will start at center and Daryn Colledge will start at right guard.
On defense, Darnell Dockett, Dan Williams and Calais Campbell will man the defensive line while Sam Acho will start at outside linebacker, Patrick Peterson will start at cornerback and Yeremiah Bell will replace Adrian Wilson at strong safety.
That leaves five starting positions open on defense and one or two on offense, although some are less open than others. Here’s a look at those six competitions and how we see them shaking out.
Outside linebacker: Lorenzo Alexander vs. O’Brien Schofield -- Schofield had played his way into the starter’s role under defensive coordinator Ray Horton, but with Schofield’s injury history (he missed part of the offseason workouts while rehabbing from torn ligaments in his left ankle and has also missed time with knee and shoulder injuries) and a new coaching staff in place, Schofield appears to have fallen behind Alexander on the depth chart. The Cards signed Alexander to a three-year $9.5 million deal ($3 million guaranteed). That sounds like starter’s money. Toss in Alexander’s noted leadership skills and Schofield has his work cut out for him to keep his job.Edge: Alexander
Inside linebacker: Jasper Brinkley vs. Kevin Minter -- The Cards signed Brinkley to a two-year, $3.5 million deal after he posted 99 tackles (63 solo) and forced three fumbles last year for Minnesota. Minter is a hard-hitting rookie with an edge who Arians had to toss out of offseason drills for excessive contact. That warrants watching as the season progresses, but the safe bet is that Brinkley starts at least until Daryl Washington returns and creates an enviable quandary at the middle linebacker position.Edge: Brinkley
Inside linebacker: Karlos Dansby vs. Daryl Washington and Reggie Walker -- Clearly, Washington is out for at least the first four games of the season due to suspension (possibly longer if his off-field legal troubles persist). In the short term, that gives Dansby the starter’s role with Walker as his backup. What the Cardinals do when/if Washington returns is anybody’s guess. It’s been suggested Dansby could play strong side linebacker in 4-3 formations, but the Cards have not announced a switch in schemes and new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles stuck with a 3-4 base in offseason workouts. Dansby’s versatility and affability in the locker room are definite plusses.Edge: Dansby
Cornerback: Jerraud Powers vs. Antoine Cason -- Cason (one year, $1.5 million) has more experience at this position and hasn’t missed a game in his five-year career. Powers has missed 22 games with hamstring, forearm, elbow and toe injuries, but he played for Arians in Indianapolis, he was courted early in free agency and he signed for three years and $10.5 million. That should tip the scales in his favor in one of the more hotly contested battles. It likely won’t matter anyway who starts, given the need for multiple cornerbacks in today’s pass-happy, nickel-package NFL.Edge: Powers
Free Safety: Rashad Johnson vs. Tyrann Mathieu -- Johnson replaced Adrian Wilson in passing situations for part of last season and has the early edge. Mathieu will see the field plenty (aside from his return duties), including as a nickel corner, but given his long layoff from competitive football and his transition to a new position and new league, it’s unlikely he’ll earn the starter’s job out of camp unless his unquestioned talent simply dazzles the coaching staff. One knock on Johnson, to date, is that he hasn’t shown the ability to be a difference maker on the field.Edge: Johnson
Right tackle: Bobby Massie vs. Nate Potter-- After a rough first half, Massie came on over the second half of the 2012 season. According to Pro Football Focus, from Week 8 on, Massie had just two games where he finished with an overall negative grade, and just one where he graded negatively as a pass blocker. In those remaining nine games he allowed more than two total pressures in a single game just once (Bears) and just 14 total over that span. That would make it likely that he starts again, but Potter spent much of the offseason workouts at right tackle while Massie worked as a backup left tackle. Was that a sign of things to come or just a nod to the versatility Arians wants to see from his linemen? Is the staff preparing in case Brown doesn’t play up to his hefty contract ($8.4 million cap number this season)?Edge: Massie
Running back: Rashard Mendenhall vs. Ryan Williams: Mendenhall is the overwhelming favorite to earn the starter’s role, given his experience playing for Arians in Pittsburgh and his solid track record, but both backs will see plenty of time, provided they can stay healthy. Williams is coming off a second straight season-ending injury; Mendenhall is coming off an ACL tear 16 months ago and an Achilles injury that limited him in 2012. Edge: Mendenhall.
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