GLENDALE, Ariz. — Earl Watford is looking to go from a fourth-round pick out of James Madison University to the starting right guard for the Arizona Cardinals. Paul Fanaika was a free agent pickup last season that started all 16 games for the team at right guard and would like to keep that job.
The two are in one of the more intriguing training camp battles.
“He’s more than ready; he’s contending right now,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said when asked if Watford was ready to start. “It’s just Paul is playing so well. We’ll determine it in pads. If anybody goes and says they’re starting, you’re writing the wrong thing.”
So while Fanaika may have the early lead, the battle is far from being over.
“I’m just trying to come out every day, build my craft, work on my skills, just get better,” Fanaika said. “It’s going to be a competition — it’s training camp. You’ve just got to take that in the most positive way and use it to motivate you to get better.”
If there’s one thing Arians has proven it’s that he’ll put the best player on the field. The next few weeks will determine who that is.
“I’ve just got to take it day by day, do my job,” Watford said. “The only way I can earn it is if I limit the mistakes and play as hard as I can every day.”
In reality it was probably expected Watford would be ready to assume the starting job this year when the team selected him in last year’s draft. But Fanaika did well last season, and having experience on his side cannot be discounted.
“I definitely think there’s an advantage having played last year a lot like I did so yeah, it just gives me a certain comfort level with the system, being so familiar with it,” Fanaika said. “It’s definitely an advantage and definitely good for me.”
Listed at 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, Watford appears to have the physical tools to get the job done. But as with all young players, and maybe especially so with those who come from smaller colleges, the mental aspect of the game is where he needs to prove himself.
Fanaika, on the other hand, comes in at 6-foot-6 and 333 pounds. He was originally a seventh-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles’ in 2009 out of Arizona State, but got his first game action with the Seattle Seahawks in 2011. If not for the season-ending injury to Jonathan Cooper last season, he may not have received the opportunity he did, but once on the field he played well enough to stay there.
But this is a new season, which means things can change.
The first chance for either to really separate himself will come Monday when the players first put the pads on and are allowed to hit each other. That’s when Arians says they’ll really start to get a feel for what players can do.
“It’s coming fast, but every day you’ve got to take advantage of and just work on the little things and the big things, stay in the playbook and keep working,” Watford said.
Fanaika feels the same way, adding he’s approached this camp under the belief that the starting job should be his, but he still has to work for it.
Given that both players are still very young and relatively inexperienced, there figures to be plenty of room to do just that.
Watford lamented how he jumped offside in Saturday’s practice — pointing to that as the type of mistake he can’t afford to make if he’s to earn the starting job. If he can cut those out of his game, he believes, things will work out.
“Those are things you can’t do,” he said. “You’ve got to take care of the little things. The little things become big things if you don’t nip them in the bud as soon as possible.
“So just cut out the mental errors, get my technique right and everything will fall into place.”
That may lead to him taking the job from Fanaika. Or, it may not. Regardless of what could happen, Fanaika said there is no bitterness between the two even though they are fighting for the same job.
“I’m the type of guy that’s going to help everybody when they ask me a question,” he said, adding Watford knows he can come to him whenever he’s unsure of something.
“There’s no animosity between me and him even though we’re competing for the same job. At the end of the day this is a bonus, it’s good for the team. It’s good to have competition because that obviously shows some kind of depth.”