More unknown than known about the Arizona Cardinals cornerbacks
TEMPE, Ariz. — Admittedly, this was not the plan.
Not Week 1, and certainly not against the caliber of opponent as the New England Patriots, regardless of the quarterback under center.
Yet, here are the Arizona Cardinals with a rookie — and a player with very limited experience at the position — starting at cornerback.
In the season opener. In front of a nationally televised audience, no less.
No one could have forecast Brandon Williams being in the spot he now finds himself in less than five months after being selected in the third round (92nd overall) in the 2016 NFL Draft.
OK, maybe one person could. Williams.
“Not to be cocky, but not at all because I know the type of work I put in behind closed doors; a lot of sacrifice, a lot of commitment, dedication, being consistent,” he said Wednesday, just moments after he was officially named the starter. “I know what I do, I know how I prepared myself, so being surprised about the position I’m in right now, I’m not surprised at all.”
But most everyone else is surprised.
“Well, in April I would’ve said, ‘No, he wouldn’t be starting corner,’” said cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross, who then listed Justin Bethel’s lingering foot injury plus injuries to veterans Mike Jenkins and Alan Ball for why Williams has been thrust into the job. “Now he’s got to play.”
Ross, though, expressed confidence in Williams, as head coach Bruce Arians has throughout training camp and preseason.
“He’s made drastic improvement. I mean he came here, he’s a guy who played six months of DB (at Texas A&M after a position switch from running back), so he’s come a long ways. The great thing about him is he’s thirsty for knowledge, and he’s not scared of the challenge, so he’s going to be OK,” Ross said, pointing to Williams’ confidence and capacity to quickly forget the previous play, especially if beaten in coverage or penalized. “He’s got the mentality you’re looking for in a DB, that’s for sure.”
The only thing Williams lacks is experience. That will come, and fast, too. With All-Pro Patrick Peterson covering the other side of the field, Williams will be tested often.
“I don’t give a hell who you put over there; he’s getting picked on,” Arians said. “He’s the best we’ve got so he better be (ready).”
Back to the original plan.
It was expected that Bethel, entering his fifth NFL season, would slide into the starter’s role given the free-agency departure of last year’s starter, Jerraud Powers. But a left foot fracture that required surgery cost Bethel the entire offseason and most of training camp. Those reps he missed went to Williams, who excelled.
Still, the Cardinals went looking for veteran help and signed Jenkins and later Ball; neither of whom made it through the preseason. Jenkins hurt his hand early in camp and then later suffered a torn ACL at Houston. Ball, meanwhile, dealt with a quadriceps issue that ultimately led to an injury settlement.
Through it all, Williams kept improving.
“Day 1, I didn’t know how to backpedal,” he said. “My press wasn’t as polished as I wanted it to be, and I still have a long ways to go, but from Day 1 to now it’s day and night.”
Aside from his athleticism, perhaps the most impressive part of Williams’ game is his short-term memory.
“The mindset that I bring to the table is just you got to get yours more than you get got,” he said. “That’s the kind of mindset you got to have at corner because you’re going to get got. Those guys get paid, too. Those guys are tremendous athletes just like you are, but you got to make sure you make more plays, though.”
There will be a learning curve with Williams, that’s a given. But for now, he’s the starter.
Bethel and Marcus Cooper, whom the Cardinals recently acquired from the Chiefs, will also see time –perhaps rotating in — though it remains to be seen how much Bethel will be able to contribute. He’s been limited in practice because of the foot.
“He’s got a couple of choices,” Ross said of Bethel, “he can worry about the foot or he can worry about the guy he’s got to cover. On gameday, adrenaline will kick in and he won’t be worrying about that foot too much, he’ll be worrying about his performance.”
Williams is not worried. Again, he’s put in the work. And as far as the big stage of Sunday Night Football in front of a sold-out University of Phoenix Stadium, yeah, that doesn’t faze Williams, either.
“Me being at A&M helped me a lot because we played every Saturday (in front of) 100,000-plus on national TV,” he said. “Playing under the bright lights and all of that, I’m used to that now.”
Williams hopes to be the answer to perhaps the one defensive question remaining with the Cardinals ahead of the season opener.
“It ain’t a question mark until you go out there and try him. You got to try him first, and if he answers the questions, then there ain’t no questions,” Ross said. “We’re not the first team in this position and we won’t be the last team in this position. There’s a lot of teams playing a couple of rookies here and there, so you know what, it’s his turn, it’s his time.”