Cardinals CB Justin Bethel now more important than ever

Aug 8, 2017, 2:03 PM
Arizona Cardinals defensive back Justin Bethel (28) breaks up a pass intended for receiver John Bro...

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)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Justin Bethel’s training camp storyline has shifted from one extreme to the other. At the start of camp, the sixth-year cornerback was in a battle for the starting spot opposite Patrick Peterson, and a whole lot of shade was being thrown his way.

Less than three weeks later, it would take a disastrous preseason performance by Bethel for someone to unseat him. Ronald Zamort’s ACL tear played a role in that shift, but when coach Bruce Arians was asked Tuesday what he needed to see from Bethel in his preseason cameos, beginning with Saturday’s game against Oakland in which the starters are slated to play about 15 snaps. Arians was effusive in his praise.

“Just what he’s doing,” the Cardinals coach said. “If he plays at the level he’s playing at right now, he’s going to have a great year.”

That stance may be true or it may contain a dose of hyperbole to boost Bethel’s confidence as he prepares for an opening three-week slate that could include three of the NFL’s top-rated passers in total QBR: Detroit’s Matthew Safford, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck (if he’s healthy) and Dallas’ Dak Prescott.

All the same, the lack of significant competition for an unproven starter also raises questions about the Cardinals’ corner depth. Despite the public praise of Brandon Williams’ bounce-back effort in the Hall of Fame Game and his steady practice habits, he has fallen off the pace due to slow overall progress, with his job security perhaps saved by the fact that he was a third-round draft pick and the competition around him is scarce.

Veteran Tramon Williams is the only legitimate threat to Bethel’s starting status, but he may begin playing more in nickel situations.

“I’ve played, nickel, dime and safety over my career so I’m pretty familiar with everything, comfortable with the movements and positions you’ll be in,” said Williams, who admitted he is still picking up the nuances of the Cardinals defense. “The biggest thing you have to pick up is what are the adjustments to every call. Different defenses have different adjustments but I played in this defense in my career before so I kind of know some of those adjustments, too. It’s just different terminology.

“I’m still learning obviously, but I’m taking it slow through everything and I feel good where I’m at.”

Arians made it clear on Tuesday that Harlan Miller’s way onto the 53-man roster would be as a depth player with the versatility to play corner and safety. The Cardinals liked Sojourn Shelton enough to give him a $25,000 bonus, the biggest of any rookie free agent, but he’s 5-foot-9 and he’s still a rookie.

After so many growing pains, it’s odd that Bethel’s ascendance has come almost by default, but he is healthy and practicing again, and that was always viewed as the biggest hurdle to his progress.

“The biggest thing is body language,” Arians said. “He couldn’t practice all of camp last year on the foot and then he’d get in games and be frustrated because he knew he could do it and his head would fall.

“Now, it’s totally different.”

Bethel insists he’s finally ready.

“All this time I had off, it gave me time to watch a lot of film and study things and see techniques. Now it’s just going out there and implementing it,” he said. “I think I’ll be able to show what I need to show in that amount of time. Hopefully, they see what they need to see.”

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