An early look at the Cardinals’ top position battles

May 4, 2018, 9:43 AM | Updated: May 5, 2018, 1:04 pm
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Cardinals general manager Steve Keim has cautioned several times that the roster after the NFL Draft and rookie free agent signings is not the roster that will open the season, or even training camp. There are more moves to come, some of them over the summer, some of them during camp.

That fact aside, there are some interesting position battles shaping up for the Cardinals ahead of the 2018 regular season. We solicited opinions from a number of media members who cover the team, including 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Ron Wolfley, Vince Marotta and Craig Grialou, along with ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss and Cardinals insider Mike Jurecki.

Here are our top five position battles.

No. 2 wide receiver

The favorite: Brice Butler

The contenders: Christian Kirk, J.J. Nelson, Chad Williams

The others: Carlton Agudosi, Rashad Ross, Cobi Hamilton, Trent Sherfield, Jonah Trinnaman, Jalen Tolliver, Corey Willis

Andre Roberts, Michael Floyd, Jaron Brown, John Brown: the list of players who have tried to play capable sidekick to Larry Fitzgerald is long, but none has achieved the longevity, consistency and durability the Cardinals enjoyed with Anquan Boldin or even Steve Breaston.

With both Browns departing in free agency, the Cardinals signed former Cowboy Brice Butler to a two-year deal in April.  Butler, 28, had 15 receptions for a career-high 317 yards and three touchdowns in 2017, leading the NFL (among players with at least 15 catches) with 21.1 yards per catch. His career-high in receptions (21) came with Oakland in 2014, but he could have the inside track over an inexperienced or ill-suited field of contenders.

The other options are speed threat J.J. Nelson, second-round pick Christian Kirk, who seems best suited for the slot where Fitzgerald currently plays, and 2017 third-round pick Chad Williams (No. 98), who seldom played as a rookie but whom the Cardinals invested a high draft pick on. The Cards desperately need more production from this position.

No. 2 cornerback

The favorite: Brandon Williams

The contender: Marcus Williams

The others: Chris Campbell, Bené Benwikere, Jonathan Moxey, Lou Young III, Moubarak Djeri, Tavierre Thomas, Deatrick Nichols

Coach Steve Wilks, a defensive back by trade, has been asked several times if Brandon Williams has the inside trek to play opposite Patrick Peterson. While Wilks said Williams is progressing, he stopped short of naming a favorite at the critical position. The Cardinals selected Williams in the third round in 2016 (No. 92). He has played well in camp each of the past two seasons as he transitioned from running back to the cornerback position he only played one season at Texas A&M, but that promise failed to carry over into each of the past two seasons.

Houston signed Marcus Williams as an undrafted rookie signed in 2014. He was released and joined the Jets, where he played more than three seasons, posting six interceptions in 2015. After playing five games in New York last season, Williams was released, then played 10 games with the Texans, recording one interception.

Campbell, the team’s 2018 sixth-round pick (No. 182) had 45 tackles, two interceptions and nine passes defensed as a full-time starter at Penn State in 2017. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim called Campbell a late-bloomer.

“Sometimes those young kids, it takes them awhile to understand coverage concepts, spacing and leverage, all the fine details at the position,” Keim said. “I think he’s a guy that sort of mastered it a little bit later but has all the physical skills you look for.”

No. 2 quarterback

The favorite: Mike Glennon

The contender: Josh Rosen

The others: Brandon Doughty, Chad Kanoff, Alek Torgersen

It’s clear that Sam Bradford will be the starter as long as he is healthy, but how long before Josh Rosen challenges veteran Mike Glennon for the backup spot will depend on his grasp of the offense, his development in other areas and his execution in camp and the preseason. The Cardinals clearly drafted Rosen to be their quarterback of the future. It would be disappointing if he didn’t challenge Glennon this season, and Bradford down the road.

“I’m not going to come in and be an a-hole and think that my [expletive] don’t stink,” Rosen said on draft day. “I understand the situation. Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon are two amazing quarterbacks, but we’re all professionals and we’re going to compete our butts off. Regardless of who the starter is, we’re all going to support that person.”

Tight end

The favorite: Ricky Seals-Jones

The contender: Jermaine Gresham

The others: RB Elijhaa Penny, Gabe Holmes, Beau Sandland, Bryce Williams, Andrew Vollert, Alec Bloom

Gresham tore his Achilles tendon in Week 17 and will start training camp on PUP. It’s still unclear when he’ll be ready to return. Both Fitzgerald and Wilks have raved about Seals-Jones’ play this spring and he should be a big part of the offense.

Beyond those two, the Cardinals are thin and woefully inexperienced at this position. Penny could end up taking some reps.

Left guard/center

The favorites: Mike Iupati, A.Q. Shipley

The contenders: Evan Boehm, Mason Cole, Justin Pugh

Iupati took a pay cut in March, dropping his base salary from $7.75 to $5 million guaranteed. His contract is voidable next season, per Jurecki. It is assumed that the line will look like this from left to right: D.J. Humphries, Iupati, Shipley, Pugh and Andre Smith, but if Iupati struggles Boehm can play guard.

Boehm should back up Shipley this season but Cole, the team’s 2018 third-round pick (No. 97) is also in the mix. With Shipley only under contract through this season, Cole could be his replacement. Cole, who played both center and tackle in college, was the first player in Michigan history to start the season opener on the line as a true freshman.

“I love his toughness, his leadership,” Cardinals coach Steve Wilks said after Day 2 of the NFL Draft. “During our research and talking to a lot of guys that I know at the University of Michigan, they stood on the table for this young man. He jumps off at you on film.”

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An early look at the Cardinals’ top position battles