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The 5: Things to watch in Cardinals’ preseason opener

Thursday evening, the Arizona Cardinals will open their 2017 preseason slate in Canton, Ohio, when they take on the Dallas Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game.

It will be the first of five preseason matchups for the Cardinals, who were able to get a head start on training camp practices because of the extra game.

But while there could have been excitement over the first chance to see this year’s team, head coach Bruce Arians announced on Tuesday his team’s starters would not see the field at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, while adding some of the team’s key reserves and young players would not play much, if at all.

Asked if there are any veterans he is looking forward to seeing, Arians said the game is “all about young guys.”

With that in mind, here is a list of five things to watch in Thursday night’s game.

Blaine Gabbert

Cardinals Camp FootballArians said Blaine Gabbert will start the game and play the entire first half, which means the veteran will have a good opportunity to show how far he has come in his short time with the team. At 27 years of age, Gabbert has flashed potential at times yet been unable to establish himself as a starting quarterback, and while nothing can happen Thursday to do that, a solid performance would be a step in the right direction. Gabbert said being the starter from the opening snap with an entire half to play will allow him to prepare like a starter and settle in, which should help his cause.

Receivers

Cardinals Camp FootballThough practices have not always been the cleanest for the group, one thing that has not changed is the belief that the Cardinals will eventually have to part ways with some talented wideouts. Injuries will help make decisions, sure, but so will what happens in these games. Larry Fitzgerald will not play, and you should not expect to see John Brown, either. Jaron Brown should make the team, as will J.J. Nelson. So, what will youngsters like Brittan Golden, Chad Williams, Larry Clark, Carlton Agudosi, Krishawn Hogan, Marquis Bundy and Chris Hubert do to convince the coaches that they should make the team? Limiting the kind of mistakes that have drawn Arians’ ire in recent days would be a good start.

Defensive linemen

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe biggest loss the Cardinals suffered over the offseason, literally, was when Calais Campbell departed for Jacksonville. Filling the massive defensive lineman’s shoes will not be easy, nor is it expected of any one player. Instead, the Cardinals’ hope a rotation of linemen will mitigate the loss, with Josh Mauro, Robert Nkemdiche, Rodney Gunter and Olsen Pierre being the most likely candidates. All bring something to the table, with Mauro being the most consistent and proven while Nkemdiche offers a tantalizing amount of potential. Regardless of who steps forward to claim the job, the Cardinals getting quality reps from this group would go a long way toward the defense remaining among the NFL’s best. On Thursday, we’ll get a look at how far some of them have come.

Budda Baker

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe second-round pick out of Washington enters the league with a considerable amount of hype, as he has often been compared to another Cardinals safety, Tyrann Mathieu. Baker is quick to say while he appreciates the comparisons, he is his own player and has a long way to go before he makes a Honey Badger-level impact. Missing OTAs and minicamp due to his college schedule did not help his growth, though the former Husky maintained he studied hard and talked with coaches while he was away so that he would not be behind when training camp started. Unfortunately (and, not surprisingly), he was, though once the pads went on he started to be noticed a bit more. While Baker being ready to go in Year 1 may not be a necessity, his emergence would add another dynamic piece to Arizona’s secondary while also giving them insurance should Mathieu suffer another injury.

Cornerbacks

WilliamsIt is the question that will be asked until it is answered, and truth be told, that probably cannot happen until Week 1 at the earliest. Yet, eyes will certainly be on the Cardinals’ cornerbacks Thursday, as Justin Bethel, Brandon Williams, Sojourn Shelton and Tramon Williams are all viable candidates to start opposite Patrick Peterson. Thursday does not figure to offer the best look at them, given that the Cowboys are not expected to play many of their best offensive players, but at the very least the younger options will have a chance to show if they have improved their technique and understanding of the position.

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