Tempe, Ariz. — Patrick Peterson still occupies the locker near one of the doors in the Arizona Cardinals’ locker room, a space on the end which gives him just one neighbor.
For years, that neighbor was safety Rashad Johnson. Now, it’s Tyvon Branch.
Jerraud Powers, who had a locker just a few down the row from Peterson, is also gone.
Everyone knew the Cardinals’ secondary could have a different look in 2016 than it did in 2015 with both Johnson and Powers set to be free agents, but with Powers now in Baltimore and Johnson in Tennessee, what was once a hypothetical is now a reality.
“It is weird,” Peterson admitted Tuesday following the team’s first Organized Team Activity practice. “But that’s the nature of the business. I wish those guys the best of luck…but it is weird — especially with Rashad because he was here since I’ve been here. He was like a big brother to me.
“I’ve looked up to him, listened to him, whatever advice hew as able to share with me and the guys. But it’s definitely going to be different, but at the same time I have to make sure that I get myself ready and get this squad ready to roll because the captains are still here.”
Change is as much a part of the NFL as touchdowns and interceptions, and given the one-year contracts signed by both Johnson and Powers, it’s fairly apparent the Cardinals had little interest in bringing either back.
Still, what the Cardinals had in their secondary last season was special. The players referred to themselves as the “No Fly Zone,” and it was about as close a knit group of players as you will find.
“Yeah, it’s a new year, it’s how the NFL works, man,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “Every year somebody comes in here, somebody leaves. Just got to work with it.”
Key returners from last year’s secondary include Peterson, who is out right now following offseason surgery, along with Jefferson, Justin Bethel and Tyrann Mathieu, who are also each out while recovering from injuries.
The team drafted a pair of cornerbacks in Brandon Williams and Harlan Miller, while Cariel Brooks, Elie Bouka, Ronald Zamort, Shaun Prater, Trevon Hartfield, Carrington Byndom and Asa Jackson are all trying to find their way onto the team and, then, onto the field.
At safety, Branch, D.J. Swearinger and Marqui Christian figure to have roles, while Brandon Person, Durell Eskridge, Chris Clemons and Matthias Farley are fighting for their spots.
In terms of raw talent, the secondary may have received an upgrade over the offseason. But in terms of experience, it is lacking.
“It’s cool, it’s cool,” Jefferson said. “That means I’ve got to step up. I’m experienced now, fourth year veteran. Leadership role, I’ve got to step up and be to it, and I’m taking it.”
Jefferson is not the only one who feels that way.
The veteran of the group at 25 years old with five NFL seasons under his belt, the recovering Peterson has focused on coaching the younger players this offseason.
“Pat’s coaching his ass off,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “I think he’s champing at the bit to get back out there but he’s been doing a great job with those young guys all through Phase 2 on technique, where their eyes should be, dropping their pad level.”
Asked if Peterson has a future in coaching, Arians joked that his player probably makes too much money and is too good a golfer to get into that side of the game.
But Peterson, who has been a team captain the last couple of seasons, understands that his youthful teammates have plenty to learn about playing in the NFL, and right now he might be the best one to teach them.
“It’s kind of like a mentorship in a sense but at the same time, these guys have to understand nine times out of 10 the ball is going to come their way, so they have to be more than ready for the opportunity,” he said. “You either seize the moment or let the moment seize you.”
As of now Bethel is projected to start opposite Peterson at cornerback, though his spot is not at all guaranteed. Regardless, whoever lines up in that role is likely to see a lot of passes thrown their way as teams look to avoid the Cardinals’ All-Pro on the other side.
Peterson said the young players need to understand that as well as the fact that Arizona’s defense does not offer the cornerbacks a lot of help.
It will be different and there is a learning curve, but they will learn. They have no choice but to.
And until they do, at least the new players have the kind of wheels that can make up for some miscues.
“It feels good, because when you have a lot of speed in the secondary you are able to close on balls much quicker and react much faster,” Peterson said. “Now we just, as a fast secondary, we just have to put it together in the scheme and understand what we are doing and guys not thinking; more reacting than thinking.
“That’s the biggest thing and that’s this time of the year that we get that stuff down pat before we get to training camp and head down to Glendale.”
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