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Cardinals pre-camp preview: Kingsbury to play WR musical chairs

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, left, stretches out with wide receiver KeeSean Johnson (19) prior to running drills at the team's NFL football training facility, Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Arizona Cardinals report to duty on Wednesday and open 2019 training camp with their first practice the following day. To preview the storylines heading into head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s first year on the job, let’s take a look at the roster by position groups.

In a previous pre-camp preview, the tight end group was covered. Those decisions — how many tight ends the Cardinals carry and which ones they do — will play a role in which receivers and how many make the initial 53-man roster. That said, here’s what can shake out during camp and the most intriguing storylines in the wide receiver group.


Projected starters

Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk

Depth

Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler, Kevin White, Damiere Byrd, KeeSean Johnson, Pharoh Cooper, Trent Sherfield, Chad Williams, A.J. Richardson

Biggest storyline

Excuse the jumble of names currently listed as depth options. But call it being fair for a position group that has many capable names but few locks to earn playing time.

We can assume that after future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald and second-year pro Christian Kirk, Arizona will keep its first two receivers drafted in 2019 on the roster. Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler bring different dimensions, and they will have their chances to play. After that, it could come down to camp battles.

The Chicago Bears’ 2015 first-round pick Kevin White has a scary injury history but the best athletic profile. Sixth-round pick KeeSean Johnson has the fundamentals and hands. Damiere Byrd and Pharoh Cooper have strong special teams resumes.

Counting those guys, we’re already at eight receivers before getting to 2017 third-round pick Chad Williams, who couldn’t produce with an opportunity in front of him last year, or 2018 undrafted pro Trent Sherfield, whose work ethic should give him a shot.

Last year, the Cardinals came out of camp carrying five receivers. That number can leap to seven with no fullback on the roster and if they keep two tight ends instead of three.

Only time will tell what Arizona prioritizes and which players make their roster decisions easy with strong training camp performances.

How Arizona uses the diminutive but speedy Isabella in the slot or as a deep threat will dictate packages, and Butler will need to carve himself out as a consistent pass-catcher. Beyond that, it’s a wide open race for what appears to be three remaining spots.

Considering how Kingsbury will attack matchups by the game and vary how each wideout is used, expect the winners of the receiver competition to be used like a game of musical chairs.

X-factor

Kevin White (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

General manager Steve Keim showed last offseason he’s not overvaluing experience at the receiver spot. NFL veterans Brice Butler and Greg Little entered camp as viable looking options, but neither made it past cuts.

For what it’s worth, Little, who hadn’t played in three seasons, looks like he’s indeed at the end of his NFL career. Butler landed with the Dallas Cowboys and then the Miami Dolphins and caught six balls for 60 yards.

All that’s to say the 6-foot-3, 216-pound White and his 4.35-second 40-yard dash potential will need to outperform a host of young players to make this roster.

“I want it real bad and I’m gonna grind and do what I have to do to prove that I’m that guy,” White told Bickley & Marotta on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

“I would play this game for free just to show that I’m that guy.”

The 2015 seventh overall pick by Chicago suffered a stress fracture to his left tibia in 2015, a fractured left fibula a year later and a fractured left shoulder blade in 2017.

For his career (14 games in four years), White has 25 catches on 47 targets for 285 receiving yards (11.4 yards per catch) without a touchdown. For perspective, Sherfield produced 19 catches on 28 targets for 210 yards (11.1 yards per catch) with a touchdown in 13 games as a rookie last season.

“I know people who coached him in college — very close with those guys — and they speak the world of him and that’s what we’ve seen,” Kingsbury said of White in May. “Hard-working, focused, wants to be great, has a lot to prove, obviously, and has a great skill set. That big and that fast, so we’re excited to see what he can be out here.”

Under the radar

— If this offense is a hit as expected, it could be a race between Fitzgerald and Kirk for who becomes quarterback Kyler Murray’s No. 1 option. Does Fitzgerald still have the juice? Does Kirk take a huge step forward playing in a familiar spread offense as he did in college at Texas A&M?

— Byrd, a 5-foot-9 specialist who has returned both punts and kickoffs, could also be a darkhorse to win snaps at receiver. He was only targeted 20 times in three years with the Carolina Panthers but offers track speed that could give opponents pre-snap scaries as a quick-hit screen threat.

— Butler admitted to too many dropped passes at Iowa State last year. But he’s also excelled at making more difficult grabs with his large 6-foot-6 frame.

— Pressure is on Williams in camp. Over 10 games, he was targeted 46 times but made just 17 catches for 171 yards in 2018, his second NFL season.

— Keim raved about Johnson’s route-running ability after scouting him at Fresno State. How that translates to the NFL and how it compares to very different rookie receivers in Isabella and Butler will be a topic of interest during camp.

He said it

“We’re going to play the game at times wider than probably most people do in the league,” Kingsbury told NBC Sports’ Peter King. “We’re going to use the entire field and make them cover five wides and the quarterback and that’s tough on defenses.”


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