Cardinals hope Robert Alford can bring the best out of Patrick Peterson
TEMPE, Ariz. — Of all the questionable position groups on the Arizona Cardinals roster as of mid-April 2019, their defensive backs present the rare exception.
The crop of starters, at least, will enter next season with high expectations. Somehow, that’s the case despite the Cardinals releasing last year’s leading tackler, Antoine Bethea.
Deploying eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson is a good start. Adding D.J. Swearinger, who was a Pro Bowl candidate before being waived by Washington last year because of his outspokenness, was a gimme. And Budda Baker entering his third season with experience at several positions gives Arizona the flexibility in scheme and depth.
“I think you’re starting to form together a pretty good backend,” said defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson in February.
But the most satisfying development, if you’re Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, was the February addition of cornerback Robert Alford. He was signed by Arizona after being released by the Falcons following a six-year run there.
Alford will be No. 2 to Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson, who became acquainted with his new teammate long ago, through former Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu. Peterson and Mathieu attended college at LSU, while Alford went to Southeastern Louisiana and like Mathieu is from Louisiana.
That relationship pushed Alford to the Cardinals.
“That’s a style of player I’m trying to be. He can teach me some things I didn’t know about the game,” Alford said.
Alford’s own success, Arizona hopes, creates a domino effect that helps their leading cornerback.
With 76 starts in 88 games for the Falcons under his belt, Alford has 249 tackles and 10 interceptions over his six-year career.
A physical press corner, he fits in Arizona’s system but comes off his worst NFL season yet. A Week 4 ankle injury limited Alford last year, but Arizona reportedly offered a hefty contract worth up to $24 million over three years, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, because the team believes he’s over it.
“I’m good now,” Alford said Tuesday.
Proving it will be another thing. The Cardinals like Alford’s competitiveness, something he’ll need to bring if teams do end up attacking him often — and sometimes beating him. Alford knows he’s walking into a tough position that last season alone ate up three starting cornerbacks.
“I’m eager at the end of the day,” Alford said. “I’m going to prepare each and every day to go out there and get it. Coaches said they needed picks each and every game and I’m looking to get that … knowing they’re not going to be throwing to Pat, they’re going to throw it the other way.
“(If) I do what I need to do, at the end of the day, we’re going to be winning.”
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, Robertson and Baker already pointed to Alford’s competitiveness as a strong suit before the cornerback put on pads for his new team. Even after last season, Joseph believes Alford’s career isn’t trending in a negative direction.
“Things happen, right? Injuries happen, schematics change,” Joseph said in February. “Guys sometimes have off-years. I think Steve (Keim) and his staff did a good job of studying this guy through his whole career. Even going back to … Steve had him as the best player in the Senior Bowl. I think we hit on this guy.
“We’ll see. We’ll see after the season how he fares.”
The Cardinals, like always, expect opposing quarterbacks to direct their throws away from Peterson, something they’ve done at an increasing rate every year since 2014.
Making the best out of that reality is the challenge for Alford. But the responsibility also falls on Joseph and Robertson.
If Alford can play well, then Arizona will have all the tools to dictate offenses rather than be dictated by them.
“Ideally, what you would like to be able to do is you want guys to actually try to throw the ball to Patrick Peterson. In my mind, I’m saying, that’s what I would like to see happen,” the defensive backs coach said. “I would like to see him get more balls thrown at him so we can find out how good he really is. I would like to see teams try it.
“I think history has proven, when you watch Alford’s tape, he’s been very competitive. It’s my job to obviously make his job easier. Being aware of that weekly of who we’re playing and if they’re attacking him more often than Pat P, I have to do a good job of helping him.”
Baker confirmed on Tuesday that the plan is for him to slide from his nickel spot played under former head coach Steve Wilks back to free safety. There he will replace Bethea.
“Plug me in anywhere,” Baker said. “Last year I played nickel, sometimes I even played WILL linebacker, depending on the matchup and all that type of stuff. For me, I think I’m a hybrid player, I can play any type of position — besides D-line.
“I’m excited going back to free safety this year though. Probably, most likely going back to free safety.”
Still, nothing’s set in stone at this point.
The draft and other additions could change the Cardinals’ plans. Baker and Swearinger should expect to shift around in the backfield based on schemes and matchups.
“(Baker) gives you flexibility,” Robertson said. “What you got to understand today, when you look at what (head coach Kliff) Kingsbury is going to do on offense, all he’s going to try to do is cause mismatches. The game has evolved to centers in basketball shooting three-pointers.”