GLENDALE, Ariz. – Missing the first three weeks of training camp was never the plan.
No, the plan was to be 100-percent by the start of training camp. It’s why Justin Bethel opted for surgery when he did, in April. Sure it would cost the Arizona Cardinals’ fifth-year cornerback much-needed offseason reps in organized team activities and minicamp, but not training camp.
But that’s exactly what happened.
“I might’ve done a little too much extra work (trying to get ready for camp) and worked it a little too much and had a setback,” he said, referring to his left foot which landed him on the physically unable to perform list when camp began July 28.
On Sunday, Bethel was not only off the PUP list—he was officially removed five days ago—but on the field practicing with his teammates for the first time.
“It felt really good. I’ve never been so excited to go out and practice,” he said, smiling. “It was great to go back out there and be able to do things feeling good and actually be able to go through drills with no pain.”
Bethel said he felt so good that he increased his planned workload of individual drills to a handful of reps in both 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 team drills, running with the second-team defense.
Bethel added not once did he feel tired during the two-hour practice.
The Cardinals will monitor Bethel’s progress, as they will with safety Tyrann Mathieu and defensive tackle Frostee Rucker, who also returned to practice Sunday following their own stays on the PUP list. The goal is for the trio to be game-ready for the Sept. 11 season opener against the New England Patriots.
Bethel, however, wouldn’t mind playing, at least some, in either of the two remaining preseason games.
“I would love to get one just to get that live feel, live bullets of playing against another team,” he said. “You can always get good reps when you’re practicing against your team, but going against another team is a whole totally different thing so I would definitely love to go out there and be able to get that experience.”
Being away from the action was difficult, Bethel admitted.
“Especially being a competitor,” he said. “Coming from last year and trying to fight for a starting spot and not being able to go out and do that, it definitely sucks.”
That was to be expected.
Perhaps not expected was how Bethel watched, from the sidelines, as his opportunity to finally be a starting cornerback in the NFL began to fade. With Jerraud Powers’ exit to Baltimore via free agency, the Cardinals had penciled in Bethel as the cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson.
That spot now belongs to rookie Brandon Williams.
“It’s just a matter of physical ability,” head coach Bruce Arians said, discussing how much ground Bethel has to make up to catch and maybe surpass Williams on the depth chart. “He shouldn’t be far behind mentally. He should know the defense inside and out. It’s a matter of going out there and doing it.”
Bethel agreed with Arians, and with three weeks remaining before Week 1, there is time for the cornerback to regain his spot with the first team.
Bethel, though, isn’t putting any added pressure on himself to be a starter.
“At the end of the day, the coaches are going to put in who they feel is going to help the team best, and if they don’t feel like I’m at the point where I need to be, they’re going to put who they think out there and Brandon has been playing really well,” he said. “Either way, I think the way we run our defense we’ll all be out there at some point doing something. We’ll all have some kind of role, but, yeah, I would love to start, but if not, I’m going to do whatever I got to do to help the team win.”