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Finally healthy, Bethel ends offseason as likely front-runner to be No. 2 CB

Cardinals DB Justin Bethel lines up for an OTA drill May 24. (Photo by Adam Green/Arizona Sports)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Asked to name where the Arizona Cardinals made the biggest progress this offseason, head coach Bruce Arians pointed to the secondary, specifically mentioning cornerback Justin Bethel.

Through 10 organized team activities, or OTAs, and three mini-camp practices, Bethel “got his hands on a ton of balls,” according to Arians, who put the number of interceptions at five or six.

Arians has not been one to heap praise on the former sixth-round draft pick. Late last season, he referred to Bethel as a “failure in progress.”

So, what’s changed since then?

“Yeah, he practiced,” Arians deadpanned. “He hadn’t practiced for two years on that broken foot. That’s the best news is he’s healthy. He’s been struggling with that foot for two years, and he looks extremely healthy right now. Knock on wood.”

Unprompted, Bethel, too, cited his health, reminding reporters he was hurt at this point a year ago, meaning he missed all of the offseason work heading into 2016.

Going from spectator to participant has meant all the difference, according to Bethel.

“You always want to take mental reps and watch, but it’s different when you get out there and your body goes through the motions and you get muscle memory and you used to seeing things,” he said Thursday, right before he and the Cardinals broke for the summer. “Experience is a lot different than just thinking of something, so going out there and being able to practice, getting those reps, it really helps you. I know it’s been helping me. Even at the end of the season last year, when I was able to practice, it got me more comfortable with what I needed to do.”

Bethel started the final two games last season. He recorded a season-best three passes defensed at Seattle and then a week later, in Los Angeles, he intercepted a fourth-quarter pass from Sean Mannion and returned it 66 yards for his third career touchdown.

That two-game stretch plus a full offseason of work is what has Bethel and the Cardinals excited about the rest of 2017.

“I think I’ve been doing really well. I’ve been able to make some plays on the ball. I’m grasping the position and the technique of it all a lot better,” he said. “I’m excited to take these next couple of weeks, keep working and working and working and then go into training camp and implement all those things that I’ve been doing here and then when we get pads on and go into preseason games and just moving forward with it.”

The season ahead is a big one for Bethel. He agreed to accept a pay cut in 2017. In return, the Cardinals canceled the final year of his contract, thus making him a free agent after the season.

In other words, Bethel, a three-time Pro Bowler on special teams, needs to play big if he hopes to land a big deal next year.

That’s next year, however.

This year is at the forefront of Bethel’s mind, so he is taking advantage of these six weeks until the start of training camp to continue working, especially on bump-and-run or press coverage technique.

“I’m going to spend all this time working on it and then when I get to training camp see where my work has led me, see how it works and tweak any little thing I need to so by the time the season comes I’m in full form,” he said.

Though Arians wouldn’t say Bethel had completely separated himself from the other cornerbacks battling to be the guy opposite Patrick Peterson, it would appear Bethel will go into camp as the odds-on-favorite to win the job.

At the moment, barring a late addition to the roster, Bethel finds himself in competition with Elie Bouka, Rudy Ford, Harlan Miller, Jumal Rolle and Brandon Williams.

“Everybody knows this time is so important and everybody just tries to do the best they can for themselves, what they know they need to do, especially if you’ve been in the league for awhile you kind of know what works for you, and I think a lot of guys will be doing that,” Bethel said.

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