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It’s all coming together for Cardinals’ Peterson this season

Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (21) celebrates a stop against the Cincinnati Bengals during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

In July 2014, Patrick Peterson signed a five-year contract extension worth up to $70 million with $48 million guaranteed. It made him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL, and meant he was under contract with the Arizona Cardinals through 2020.

He then went out and had arguably the worst season of his career, surrendering eight touchdowns while being flagged for his fair share of penalties.

We learned since then Peterson was dealing with diabetes, which had been previously undiagnosed and led to him not exactly feeling like an elite athlete should.

With the health issues under control, Peterson has emerged in 2015 as a true lock-down corner, staking his claim as being the best in the game. His pedestrian stat line of just 23 tackles and two interceptions is courtesy of the fact that, quite simply, opposing quarterbacks are not throwing his direction.

The way Peterson sees it, if he’s keeping the other team’s No. 1 receivers off of the stat sheet and out of the end zone, the Cardinals have a better chance of winning.

“I think I’m doing a pretty good job this year,” he said. “I just want to make sure I stay focused and understand what teams want to do each and every week because each and every week is different, and I just have to make sure I stay the course of the game plan and make sure that I’m dialed in and focused on what teams want to do to try to attack my weakness.”

Weakness?

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said Peterson is “playing probably as well as Deion Sanders did when he was young,” noting that the team can basically put him on a receiver and then essentially watch a great player become a non-factor for the opponent’s offense.

“I just want to continue getting better,” Peterson said. “I want to continue doing the things that got me in this position and what got me that high praise this year.

“I’ve been very, very focused this year, honed in on my assignment at all times. I’m making sure that I take a different mindset this year because last year wasn’t my best season, so I have to make sure that I’m always tuned in and always focused and always making sure of what my opponent’s going to do at all times. But to be compared to Deion Sanders of young, that’s a huge, huge complement, but in my opinion I have a long way to go.”

Peterson still has some work to do if he is to match Sanders’ eight Pro Bowls, six First-Team All-Pro selections and Pro Football Hall of Fame status, but the No. 5 overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft seems well on his way with four Pro Bowls and two First-team All-Pro selections already under his belt.

After last season’s struggles, some may have doubted that he could ever reach this level. It’s not that he was a terrible player or anything — he was selected for the Pro Bowl, after all — but he just wasn’t as good as he had been in the past or as the team was banking on him being. Peterson, though, said his confidence never wavered.

“I can care less if I was the worst corner in the league last year, I’m still going to have high confidence, I’m still going to play at a high level — if my body allows me to,” he said. “But my confidence will never shy away. I’ll always have high confidence in myself.”

It’s probably not as simple as saying the diabetes was the only thing holding him back, but at the same time, the difference in both his appearance as well as play is staggering. He looks like a completely different person and player in 2015 than he did in 2014.

“I knew what held me back last year,” he said. “I was fat and I couldn’t make any plays. I was one or two steps behind of making a play. I knew what kept me back last year of hindering my play.”

Now, there’s nothing holding him back.

“I don’t know the right word,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said when asked to describe Peterson’s play this season. “Special, unique — I don’t know that anybody else in this league is doing what he’s doing. Every week he’s in a situation where he’s defending the best receiver on the other team, and he’s doing it at the highest level.

“I don’t know if there’s anything else to say other than that.”

Dwight Freeney, a future Hall of Famer who has been with the Cardinals since mid-October, said he’s never seen a cornerback play at the level Peterson is right now.

“He does so much from a different perspective for this team,” he said. “He’s out there returning punts, he’s out there playing man-to-man, playing against the No. 1 receivers most times and shutting them down. To have a guy like that is so valuable to a defense.”

Healthy and happy, the 25-year-old’s ascension is noticeable in areas other than just the field, though. A captain for the first time this season, he made some headlines earlier in the week when he made the call to cancel “Victory Monday” for the defense, ensuring the players on that side of the ball would show up to the training facility to go over things on what was day off granted to them by Arians.

Then, Wednesday, he was named the Cardinals’ 2015 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year due to all the good he does in the community.

Tyrann Mathieu, a teammate of Peterson’s both now and in college at LSU, said the cornerback has always led by example but has become more vocal this season.

Peterson said over the offseason he spent time with some of the greatest professional athletes of all time, including Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Ray Lewis and, incidentally, Sanders, hoping to learn more about how to be a better team leader.

“What those guys were telling me, if I’m playing at a high level and I speak, my words carry a little bit more,” he said. “So I always want make sure, and especially now that I have that C on my chest, although I am more vocal I wanted to let my play do the talking so guys know I’m just now out there talking, I just don’t want to get the best out of you — I want you know you have to follow me as well.

“So I have to make sure that I’m always have high energy, always praising all the guys because all the onus is on me and Calais (Campbell) because we do have that C. We have a ton of leadership here, but it’s just more pressure on the top guys.”

Pressure comes with being a top five pick in the draft, and it only increases when you sign a contract that makes you one of the highest paid players in the league.

This time one year ago, it seemed as though he may not be worth the money. Peterson said there’s “no question” this is the best he has ever played.

“As far as mentally, as far as preparation, as far as my patience at the line of scrimmage,” he said. “Just everything I’ve been working on this offseason is definitely coming all together.”

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