The fourth preseason game is finally upon us.
Generally, teams don’t bother playing their starters in the last preseason tilt, meaning in terms of seeing what a team can do, it’s a pretty poor indicator.
However, while it may be the most meaningless game in that regard, for many players around the league, preseason game No. 4 is about as big as it gets. While starters will most likely not see the field — which is the case in Arizona, as Cardinals coach Bruce Arians announced — players fighting to improve their place on the depth chart or even make the roster itself will get one last chance to make an impression.
Given that, here’s a look at some of the story lines to pay attention to when the Cardinals visit the Denver Broncos Thursday night, with kickoff slated for 6:00 p.m.
The QB Battle
If all goes according to plan, Phillip Sims will play the entire first half while Logan Thomas will get the second. It’s a big game for the passers, both of whom are battling for the third spot on the QB depth chart. Earlier this week, each talked about how they understood it was a big game but did not plan on treating it like any other.
But it is unlike any other game they’ve played in, as whoever fares better will likely make the team while the other will be looking for work. So, who has the edge? Sims has posted better preseason numbers, completing 14-of-29 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns while Thomas has completed 12-of-24 passes for 172 yards with one interception.
A fourth-round pick out of Virginia Tech last season, Thomas was viewed as a project player but it is possible Sims, and undrafted rookie free agent from Winston-Salem State who joined the Cardinals on a tryout, could pass him on the depth chart.
“They’ve prepared well for this ball game,” Arians said. “They both played extremely well last week. It was a nice step forward for them, as far as their consistency level in all areas, the whole ball game. Yeah, if they want to get on the roster, that’s the thing that’s going to get them there.”
And at Right Tackle…
For the most part, it appears the Cardinals’ starting lineup is set, at least on the offensive side of the ball. However, one job is still up for grabs: right tackle. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Bobby Massie, who started every game at the position last year, was supposed to again fill the role. However, a three-game suspension handed down from the league removed him from consideration, and with first-round pick D.J. Humphries apparently just now getting the hang of the NFL, it is coming down to Bradley Sowell and Earl Watford. Sowell held down the fort the last two weeks, but his struggles combined with Watford’s emergence have led to the James Madison University product getting the start Thursday. Watford understands what kind of opportunity this is and is hoping to take advantage of it.
“Yes, yes, definitely,” he said. “I had a chance like this last year and I didn’t seize up to it, so this is it for me.”
The New Guys
Sean Weatherspoon was signed a one-year deal in the offseason; Chris Johnson was added on a similar, albeit less financially fruitful deal. Each player is looking for a bounce-back season to prove they are healthy and effective NFL players, but thus far, neither has done much for the team in training camp due to hamstring injuries.
However, both players are slated to make their debuts Thursday, with Arians saying Johnson will hopefully get between 10 and 12 carries. The coach was careful to note that the staff must be careful not to overwork either player, as that would increase the risk of them re-injuring their hamstrings. But the important thing is that they will play.
“It’s good to get to see what he is as a football player, where he’s at,” Arians said, speaking of Weatherspoon. “Get a chance to measure him against the other guys. That’s always the evaluation process.”
The Fight for 53
Earlier in the week, the Cardinals trimmed their roster to the league-mandated 75. By Saturday, they must get down to 53.
That means some tough decisions are ahead for the team, most notably in the secondary, at receiver and at running back. While Thursday’s game is not important for stars or players who you are expecting to make an impact this season, the matchup is about as big as it gets for the guys who are hoping to make up the rest of the roster.
In the secondary, you have players like Chris Clemons, Cariel Brooks, Jimmy Legree and Harold Jones-Quartey fighting for a job. At receiver, Brittan Golden, Jaxon Shipley and Trevor Harman are on the bubble. And at running back, Marion Grice, Kerwynn Williams and Paul Lasike would seem to be in trouble, though nothing is guaranteed for Stepfan Taylor or Robert Hughes.
Arians has said the team will not cut a superior player because it may have more of a need at another position, which is something worth keeping an eye on.
In short, the Cardinals are going to have to part with some talented players, many of whom will likely find themselves on another roster if they don’t land on Arizona’s practice squad.
“There will be some tough decisions in the last three or four guys, yeah, because there is great competition in some spots,” Arians said.
Getting Over the Hump(hries)
The Cardinals did not want to need D.J. Humphries this season. Though he was their first-round pick, 24th overall, the hope was he would be able to sit for much of the season and learn how to be a pro. Unfortunately, Massie’s suspension created a hole at the very position the former Florida Gator was expected to fill (at some point), and his not being ready has proven to be a source of contention this camp.
In fact, Arians has not been shy about calling the 21-year-old out, speaking mostly to his work ethic and not his talent or ability. This week the coach actually said some nice things about his rookie, telling the media Humphries is getting better now that he’s “realizing what pro football is all about.”
That does not mean Humphries is ready to contend for the starting job — as noted above, that battle is between Sowell and Watford — but if the rookie has truly taken a step forward that would go a long way toward shoring up what has turned into a very questionable offensive line. A good performance Thursday would be inspiring.
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