TEMPE, Ariz. — Justin Bethel wasn’t looking for a faster road to free agency. He was just trying to salvage something from an unwanted business decision.
“The way events happened, it just turned out to be a way that was beneficial for both sides of the party; for the team and for me,” said Bethel, who accepted a $2.5 million pay cut on this year’s salary in exchange for the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent in 2018. “They had something they wanted to do so it was like, ‘Y’all get what you want out of it and it will help me get something out of it.'”
Bethel, who will turn 27 in June, was due to make $4.5 million in salary this season, in the second year of a three-year contract he signed in December of 2015. Now he will make $2 million in the final year of a deal the team and his agent, Fletcher Smith, reworked last month.
The finality of that reality creates pressure for most players, and Bethel acknowledged the challenge ahead of him in a contract year, but he is approaching it from a different perspective.
“I look at it as not anything about my contract but just a year for me to bounce back from my injury and prove that I’m the player that I know I can be,” he said. “I think I’m a great player and I can compete with the best. Now I just have to go out and show it and prove it.”
Bethel labeled himself 95 percent healthy from the fractured foot he suffered in the 2015 season — the one that kept him out of OTAs, minicamp and training camp last year, limited him in practices and hampered his development at the critical cornerback position opposite Patrick Peterson.
Bethel pulled back his sock on Thursday to reveal a permanent screw on the outside and bottom of his foot that bulges underneath the skin. Because of the placement, he is still experimenting with cleats to find pairs that do not press against the outside of his foot and create discomfort.
“With the insertion point, when they do that they have to cut through that muscle and tendon and that’s what gets sore is the scar tissue,” he said. “While I’m doing stuff it feels great, but then it will just get a little sore. It just needs to break up, but it’s way better than it was before and by training camp I expect to be 100 percent.”
Bethel also said he is in a good place with Bruce Arians after the coach’s infamous quote that Bethel’s work at cornerback was “a failure in progress” — a quote Arians later said was taken out of context.
“Only one line of that was used. I said it was not his fault because of his broken foot,” Arians said at the NFL’s Annual Meeting at the Arizona Biltmore last month. “It’s funny because his father came to practice that Saturday and grabbed me and said, ‘You trying to motivate my son?
“I said, ‘yeah.’
“He said, ‘I think it’s working.'”
Bethel said he talked to Arians about it afterward and came to an understanding.
“I’m not the retaliation type or feel like I need to defend myself in situations like that,” Bethel said. “Things do get taken out of context sometimes and that’s probably what was the case, but either way, I can’t let it affect me negatively in what I do. I know what I’m capable of. You know when you’re getting better. You know when you’re feeling better so when you’re able to go, just go out there and show what you can do.”
“Even at the time it happened, I wasn’t holding a grudge against him. We talked about it and I was over it. The media sometimes likes to drag it out and keep it alive but he talked to me about what happened and I was like ‘OK, that’s cool.’ We talk every time I walk by him. We’re good.”
Bethel will compete with second-year pro Brandon Williams and likely a higher-round draft pick for a starting role this fall. To win that job, he understands the importance of a full offseason of work — and the impact it had on him when he could not put in the work.
“It’s recognition, playing fast and your body gets used to breaking on balls; gets used to seeing things,” he said. “When you don’t get to do that your body gets out of the groove of playing football.
“Obviously, nothing is given in this league and I don’t expect that, especially after the year I had last year. I’m just excited to go out and compete for the job to earn that starting position.”
If all goes well, Bethel would like to remain in Arizona beyond this season.
“I’ve been talking to some guys about this and time flies so fast,” he said. “I’ve been living here for five years. You start to get really familiar with the cities and the people and it becomes home.
“You never really want to leave home once you have kind of cemented yourself in an area. I would love to stay here long term, be like a Larry [Fitzgerald], but you never know. We’ll see what happens. All I can do is go out there and put my best foot forward and put good tape out there and make the best of my situation.”
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