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Healthy Justin Bethel adds nice wrinkle to Cardinals’ CB competition

Arizona Cardinals defensive back Justin Bethel (28) breaks up a pass intended for receiver John Brown, left, during an NFL football training camp Monday, July 24, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Justin Bethel was about to answer some questions when Brandon Williams, who had walked into the locker room with him, sarcastically, chimed in with some of his own.

“How do you think you’re doing in the battle between you and Brandon Williams,” he asked. “Do you think you’re leading him or he’s leading you?”

Williams added he was ready to go on and conduct the interview, at which point featured a laughing Bethel.

While their competition is serious — and, arguably, the most important with regards to the team’s chances in 2017 — the exchange underscored not only the players’ friendship, but also their confidence.

Both Bethel, now entering his sixth season, and Williams, who is beginning his second, believe they have what it takes to play opposite six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro Patrick Peterson.

Williams emerged as the starter out of training camp as a rookie, only to falter some before being supplanted by veteran Marcus Cooper. With Cooper now in Chicago, the job is again available, though at the end of the team’s mini-camp head coach Bruce Arians proclaimed it was Bethel who had the early lead.

It helps that Bethel, who has battled foot and ankle problems for the better part of the last two seasons, is finally healthy.

“It feels great,” he said. “You don’t realize how much you miss it until you can’t do it, and so being able to train this offseason and be able to prepare for this training camp and be able to look forward to going into the season healthy (and) being able to play, it’s a great feeling.”

On Monday, he intercepted a pass while batting away a couple others, and Tuesday Arians said Bethel has had good days every day in camp.

“The best thing with him, when he gives up a play right now he just comes back and goes to the next one — it used to bother him, now it doesn’t,” Arians said. “He’s learning to get amnesia.”

That Bethel is playing well now may not come as a total shock, especially given how he finished the 2016 season. In Weeks 16 and 17 against the Seahawks and Rams, respectively, he collected four passes defensed as well as one interception, which he returned 66 yards for a touchdown.

Yet, there was and is still plenty of uncertainty surrounding Bethel, which is why his contract was changed over the offseason to pay him less money but shorten it by one year, meaning he will be a free agent at the end of this upcoming season.

Hence, the competition with Williams.

“I don’t look at it as a competition,” Williams said. “I look at it as he does his job, I do my job, and we both go out there and dominate.”

“I think we’ve both been working really hard in the offseason and I think it’s just one of those things where we both know our skillset and we’re going to just go out there and play the best that we can,” Bethel added.

“At the end of the day let the coaches do what they want to do, and just know that either way both of us need to be prepared to start at any time.”

The best-case scenario for the Cardinals would of course be having both players step up and prove worthy of a starting role. Since Arians took over in 2013, the team has seen Jerraud Powers, Antonio Cromartie, Bethel, Cooper and Williams all get time opposite Peterson, and before that, William Gay, Greg Toler, Richard Marshall and A.J. Jefferson were part of the revolving door.

“Both of them look good,” Peterson said of Bethel and Williams. “Justin is playing at a high level right now; the biggest thing for Brandon is just growing that confidence.”

Peterson said Williams has been a sponge around him, and spent much of the offseason working out alongside him. Williams, who said the biggest change for him from a year ago is on the mental side of the game, said Peterson is the top cornerback in the league.

“His technique is what makes him the best, so when you have a technician like that on your team, being a young guy, you can learn a lot from him,” he said.

It is rare for teams to have multiple shut-down corners; but then again, the Cardinals have had their share of swings and misses looking for a second. Peterson praised the work both of this year’s top candidates have put in.

“We’re going to need somebody to step up, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that these guys are ready,” he said. “But so far, Brandon and Justin are looking very, very good.

“It’s a heated battle, and it’s definitely going to come down to the wire.”

It also may be adding a contender.

A report came out Monday that the Cardinals were set to work out veteran corner Brandon Flowers, who was a Pro Bowler in 2013 but has battled injury, most recently concussions. Arians said the team will indeed take a look at him Wednesday because he is a good player who happens to be available.

“You’re going to see some guys coming in here real fast to build this roster, just in case,” Arians said. “Either young guys haven’t performed well enough and there are so many good veterans on the street, that you want to have guys ready to go.”

The Cardinals may ultimately sign the 31-year-old, who has 21 career interceptions over nine seasons with the Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs.

Until then — and, perhaps, even if they do — the job is still up for grabs. Bethel said he certainly feels like it is his, though he noted that is how he is supposed to feel. He added he had a similar thought last season before injuries took their toll.

“It’s a general thing,” he said of being healthy now. “I’m not worried about it; certain things, I feel faster, I feel like my same speed again. I don’t worry about it.

“When I’m out there playing, I’m not thinking, ‘OK if I do this I know it’s going to hurt’ and I think I just, I don’t know, I’m just happy to be healthy.”

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