Justin Bethel knows his 2016 season was not a good one, save for the last couple of weeks.
After struggling to make much of an impact most of the year, he collected 11 tackles along with one interception — which he returned 66 yards for a touchdown — over the final two games, both of which were Cardinals wins.
At that point, the broken foot that required surgery and plenty of rehab and time had started to feel good.
“I knew I wasn’t healthy enough to play corner full-time; it was like, at least let me get healthy enough so I can at least help on special teams and do something,” Bethel told Bickley and Marotta on 98.7 FM, Arizona’s Sports Station Thursday. “As the season went on I got healthier and healthier, and by the end of the season I was able to really practice and really be able to go out there and play.
“It was evident on the field and obviously I’m trying to take that and keep moving forward with it.”
Bethel said being able to finish strong and end the season on a high note felt good, and it allowed him to feel confident heading into the offseason.
That confidence is in part why he agreed to take a paycut in exchange for his contract coming to an end following the 2017 season.
“I think it was just one of those things where it was a situation where the team thought, because of how the season ended and because of where they wanted me to be in the future, it was something that they wanted to throw out there,” he said. “We just ended up making it beneficial for both sides.
“I don’t have any ill-will; you’ve got to play to earn your money in this league and I already know what I can do and I plan on going out there and proving what I can do so where taking a paycut isn’t that big of a deal to where I end up making it back.”
If Bethel rebounds and has a productive 2016, he will be hitting the free agent market at just 27 years of age.
“Betting on yourself,” is how he described his situation.
It is a gamble for a player who has three career interceptions, but might be one worth making.
Bethel had originally signed the three-year extension worth a reported $15 million in December 2015 as the team viewed him as an ace special teams performer and emerging cornerback.
But the foot injury that hampered him toward the end of that season and in the playoffs required surgery and led to him missing most of the 2016 offseason. Then, by the time he finally got back on the field, he struggled to the point where late in the campaign head coach Bruce Arians called his growth as a cornerback a “failure in progress,” in part because he was battling the injury.
Bethel said he appreciated his coach’s perspective because, as he said, Arians understood his situation and was not holding it all against him.
“We’re on good terms and I don’t hold anything against him,” Bethel added.
Bethel’s perspective heading into this crucial season is a good one, as he seems comfortable with his contract status as well as his foot. Now entering his sixth season, there is no shortage of confidence that the only thing that has held him back is an injury he is now finally past.
While he expects to make his mark on defense, Bethel said he is still likely to contribute on special teams, where he has made three Pro Bowls due to his prowess. He can change games there, and he understands why the coaches would not want him to give up that part of his game.
The balancing act comes in him needing to play well on defense in order to maximize his value in what is now a contract year, but Bethel said the key will be managing his greater role.
“It’s a little bit of doing what I need to do to take care of myself, but also, usually if the team is very successful, a lot of individual success comes along with that,” he said.
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