GLENDALE, Ariz. — Through the first couple weeks of Arizona Cardinals training camp, Brandon Williams was a star.
The third-round pick out of Texas A&M who had played just a year of cornerback was thrust into a starting role and, for the most part, had acquitted himself well on a daily basis.
Rare was the practice where he did not make a few big plays, and his performances had many wondering if he might be ready to contribute sooner than originally thought.
Then the preseason games began, and the rookie got picked on. And he got picked on. And he got picked on.
Starting with the first play from scrimmage in the game against the Raiders and then through the second outing against the Chargers, Arizona’s opponents seemed to zero in on the receiver Williams was covering and, for the most part, found success throwing that direction. That’s not to say Williams got beat all the time — especially against San Diego he managed to break up some passes — but the player who looked like he would challenge for a starting spot instead looked like, well, a rookie.
“I had a couple growing pains and I’m still going through my growing phase,” Williams said after practice Monday. “Just trying to get better every day.”
By all accounts, he has done just that. Even while he has struggled at times, Cardinals brass has been quick to mention how impressed they are with Williams’ ability to bounce back and continue to compete. Get him on one play? That’s fine, now do it again.
In Monday’s practice, for example, he was beaten for touchdowns by Michael Floyd and Jaron Brown, but also deflected a ball that turned into a Tyrann Mathieu interception and came up with pick of his own off of a Carson Palmer pass.
If nothing else, Williams is getting a crash course in Pass Coverage 101. Whether it’s been Larry Fitzgerald, Floyd, John Brown or J.J. Nelson in practice or Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree or Keenan Allen in the games, he has faced some of the game’s better pass catchers, wideouts who would be a handful for even seasoned cornerbacks.
“He’s a guy who we’re going to look to lean on in the season, so we wanted to see how he was living, how he was going to respond when the ball is coming your way, because that’s what it’s all about,” Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson said.
A five-time Pro Bowler, Peterson was not bragging when he acknowledged how, after the kind of season he had in 2015, opponents are more than likely going to throw to receivers he is not matched up with.
He’s not wrong, and everybody knows it.
“And now you have an opportunity to go up against a rookie defensive back that, nine times out of 10, they are going to pick on the young pup,” he added.
Williams, who has been attached to Peterson’s hip for most of camp, laughed when acknowledging that it’s because of Peterson that his on-field life will be, well, busy. But at the same time, he said the veteran has done everything he can to help his progression.
“Just letting me know that all DBs go through it. Whether you’re a first-year DB or a fifth-year DB, every DB goes through that transition where they have to adjust to the speed, adjust to playing crafty receivers, just adjusting to the NFL, period,” Williams said. “So just letting me know that this is not anything new, not anything out of the ordinary that I’m going through right now.”
Williams’ learning curve is even steeper than most rookies’ because he played just one year of defensive back in college before being chosen by the Cardinals last April. It is obvious he has the physical tools necessary to be great — he’s 6 feet tall, 200 pounds and ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine — and to be fair, even when he is giving up completions in practice or games it is not like he is completely out of position having gotten beat.
“Just reps, just reps — at the corner position it takes reps,” Williams said when asked about how he goes from a player who is in position to make the play to one who actually makes it. “You sitting in the film room just watching film at corner, you’re not going to get better like that.
“Actually going through it and actually being put in that position, you understand the muscle memory and how it feels or whatnot. That’s how you get better. Just reps for me.”
As camp and preseason have worn on, there has been noticeable progress.
“I thought Brandon got really better last week going against different receivers, seeing different things,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “I thought he held his own all week.”
The coach said the biggest thing for Williams as he moves forward is simply continue to grow, because “the balls are coming your way.”
You don’t have to be a mathematician to understand that the more passes that come Williams’ way, the more receptions, yards and touchdowns he’s going to give up. The key will be keeping his head up even when things are not going his way, and as Peterson said, that is the toughest thing for a young defensive back.
“That was something that I had to deal with being a young guy, obviously, although A.J. (Jefferson) was a young corner as well, but I had the pressure on going against those No. 1 guys,” he said. “So I was in Brandon’s shoes getting those 13, 14 targets a game in my young career.
“But it is tough to get a young guy to understand that his confidence is everything; also keeping that confidence up because once your confidence is up, pretty much, what are you playing for? Now you’re out there second-guessing yourself, and that’s the worst position you want to be in as a defensive back, as a corner, on an island, second-guessing yourself.”
Williams said he can’t say how he keeps his confidence but believes it’s just a mindset. He must understand that he is going to be a target and must be ready take on the challenge of seven to eight passes coming his way per game.
However he has done it, his unflappable nature is a big reason why the team is so excited about his future. A guest of Doug and Wolf on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Monday morning, Cardinals GM Steve Keim praised Williams’ competitiveness, noting “he doesn’t have the ‘woe is me’ attitude.”
But along with that, the GM admits to being surprised at how smooth Williams’ NFL road has been so far.
“Quite frankly, I thought it would have been a little worse,” Keim said. “Some of the stuff he does naturally you just can’t coach, when you have a guy that has that kind of length and movement skills and natural competitiveness.
“So, he’s a little further along, actually, than I anticipated.”
That’s not to say he does not still have a long way to go, because Williams clearly does. But based on what he has shown, it can be reasoned the only thing that is holding him back is a lack of experience. And that issue, of course, can only be solved with time.
“It helps my confidence a lot, knowing that I know I’ve got what it takes,” Williams said. “The mindset and the athletic ability to prosper in this league.
“All I need to do is just keep playing. Keep playing and get better.”