The 5: Cardinals position battles of note for their preseason finale
As of Monday afternoon, Arizona Cardinals coach Steve Wilks hadn’t discussed the construction of the 53-man roster with general manager Steve Keim.
A Thursday night preseason finale against the Denver Broncos looms, and from there Arizona will have about 36 hours to cut its roster nearly in half by the 1 p.m. deadline Saturday.
Don’t expect many of the Cardinals’ stars to play at University of Phoenix Stadium against Denver, but do expect young players out there. Oh, and also keep an eye on these five position battles that could give Arizona a final few thoughts on how to construct the 53-man roster.
Chandler Jones will make the team. Based on how much Benson Mayowa played in the Cardinals’ third preseason game, he looked like he will hold down the opposite end spot until Markus Golden returns from a torn ACL.
There are questions after that.
Vontarrius Dora, despite having little in-game NFL experience, had been right in the mix to challenge Mayowa for playing time and recorded three sacks to follow Mayowa last Sunday. Thirty-year-old Arthur Moats could’ve been in the mix before suffering an MCL sprain that will keep him out at least two to four weeks, and offseason signee Jacquies Smith has 29 games of NFL experience under his belt but didn’t appear to move up the depth chart over his month-plus in camp.
We haven’t even reached preseason All-Star Cap Capi, who again thrived as a pass-rusher but, according to Wilks, needs to round out his game to become a sound player against the run.
And keep an eye out for Alec James, an undrafted rookie who Wilks brought up last week when asked about who’d impressed at the position.
Arguably, the defensive end play on Thursday could most influence any late opinions by the Cardinals’ brass regarding the 53-man roster.
Larry Fitzgerald is a given, but while nobody seemed to separate themselves as the second-best option behind the 15-year pro and future Hall of Famer, it’s not until considering the backend where there’s confusion about who will make the 53-man roster. Let’s call veteran Brice Butler and second-round pick Christian Kirk safe, and assume Chad Williams has a spot because of how often he played with the first team group.
Now it comes down to J.J. Nelson, who still has the best recent resume of the remaining players. Veteran Greg Little’s comeback story looks good if you listen to his coaches’ comments about his readiness in practice. He might have the edge on undrafted rookie Trent Sherfield, and the cutoff might be in between or after those two players.
Little has been targeted seven times but has just two catches for 10 yards to his name. Sherfield has just two catches with limited opportunities.
While we’re on that topic: the opportunities haven’t been optimal for any receivers this preseason, but expect Arizona to sling the ball around late Thursday to get a final look at what they’ve got. Carlton Agudosi, Jalen Tolliver, C.J. Duncan and Corey Willis are probably on the outside looking in.
It’s clear head coach Steve Wilks wants to use tights ends — even two at a time — in numerous ways. They’ll be involved in the passing game. They’ll block around the edges. They’ll even line up in I-formations at times.
Ricky Seals-Jones is the clear No. 1 option in terms of adding to the passing game, and he arguably could blow up into one of the team’s better weapons. Gabe Holmes has gone under the radar as a blocker, but Arizona hasn’t been shy about passing him the ball, either.
The real question is whether the Cardinals see any separation from any of rookies Alec Bloom (UConn) and Andrew Vollert (Weber State), or second-year pro Bryce Williams (East Carolina).
Vollert quietly has six catches in three preseason games, second-most on the team to Kirk.
Could he make the team? Are Bloom or Williams in the mix?
Maybe the Cardinals just feel like they can get away with keeping two tight ends until Jermaine Gresham is back from an Achilles injury.
There are three pretty solid bets when it comes to the cornerbacks. Patrick Peterson, Jamar Taylor and Bene Benwikere look like locks to make the Cardinals’ 53-man roster. Benwikere had to do the most to earn it, but his experience with Wilks, his solid preseason play and his ability to shift into the nickel spot makes him valuable as a backup at several spots.
Rookie sixth-round pick Chris Campbell could be a project, but Arizona obviously likes him. From there, it’s wondering if the Cardinals want to go five corners deep and keep 2016 third-round pick Brandon Williams, who missed the third preseason game with ankle issues.
Expect Campbell and, if healthy, Williams to see a lot of action. After that, it’ll be a lot of snaps between Tavierre Thomas, Deatrick Nichols and Tim Scott.
Same goes for safeties Travell Dixon, Harlan Miller, Zeke Turner and A.J. Howard, who are fighting for notice behind starting-caliber players Antoine Bethea, Budda Baker and Tre Boston.
It’s hard to say how much this will go into weighing the 53-man roster. There may be nothing any of these guys can do to force their way onto the roster with one big preseason game if defensive tackles Robert Nkemdiche, Corey Peters and Olsen Pierre are back by the regular season opener on Sept. 9 as expected. But with all three of those players out on Thursday’s game for sure, no other position will have more desperate players getting this much playing time.
The competition includes Pasoni Tasini, Siupeli Anau, Tani Tupou, Owen Obasuyi and Nigel Williams.