The Arizona Cardinals cornerback room has been central to the team’s offseason. Losing cornerstone Patrick Peterson, amongst others, threw the group into disarray, retaining only two players from last season. Via free agency and the draft, the unit has since been filled out with a notable array of talent. However, the group lacks an imposing physical profile. It remains to be seen if they can be effective against some of the NFL’s very best receivers.
Arizona Cardinals Lack of Size at Cornerback Could Be Concern
Rebuilding Cardinals Cornerbacks Room Post-P2
Rebuilding the Cardinals’ cornerback room after 2020 was no small task. Patrick Peterson was a mainstay on the Cardinals defense for a decade. Yet, from 2020, only Byron Murphy and Robert Alford, the latter of who hasn’t played in two years, remained.
At 6’1″, 203lb, Peterson physically reflected an ideal prototype for a top outside cornerback. Similar profiles can be seen in the NFL’s best cornerbacks, such as Jalen Ramsey (6’1″, 208lb). In acquiring players, teams either sign for need and fit or choose the best player available. Rather than try to replace Peterson’s profile, Steve Keim instead elected for the best player available: former Tennessee Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler. After bursting onto the scene as the hero of Super Bowl XLIX, Butler has established himself as one of the league’s better outside cornerbacks.
Adding another veteran later in the offseason, the Cardinals also signed former Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Dennard joins Butler, Murphy, and Alford as the veterans in the Cardinals cornerback room.
Although they were expected to take a cornerback high in the draft, the Cardinals were able to snag two in the later rounds. Marco Wilson out of Florida and UCF’s Tay Gowan round out the cornerbacks heading into training camp.
Of the six cornerbacks currently in contention for the Cardinals’ active roster, only two, the rookie pair of Wilson and Gowan, stands at 6’0″ or above (Wilson – 6’0″, Gowan 6’2″). The rest measure 5’11”, with the exception of Alford at 5’10”. Two of these, Malcolm Butler and Byron Murphy, are locked-in starters. As rookies, Wilson and Gowan ostensibly have an outside chance of starting. This means that the Cardinals’ starting defensive backfield will likely not feature a single-player over 6’0″.
Cardinals Schedule Includes Some Lofty Tasks
The Cardinals’ veteran cornerbacks are NFL-caliber talents. All have been starters before. Robert Alford has started in a Super Bowl. However, their physical profiles are somewhat of concern when analyzing some of the matchups in the 2021 schedule. The Cardinals will face a rogue’s gallery of some of the NFL’s very best receiving talents, including Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, Amari Cooper, and A.J. Brown. In addition to their receiving abilities, these are physically dominant players; 6′-plus, 215lb-plus.
Two matchups are particularly intimating though. First, in Week 1, the Cardinals head to Tennessee to take on the Titans. What was already a momentous task became infinitely more difficult when the Titans traded for future Hall-of-Famer Julio Jones. Fast, powerful, and aggressive, the assignment of the 6’3″, 220lb Jones will likely fall on the Cardinals’ top corner Malcolm Butler. Unfortunately, the NFL has seen this matchup before. In 2017, Jones made a spectacular touchdown grab on Butler, putting the cornerback on a highlight reel by reaching over and ripping the ball from Butler’s hands in the endzone. Heading into Week 1, Butler’s ability to match up with Jones’s physical prowess will be one to keep an eye on.
D.K. Metcalf has become the NFL’s benchmark for physical excellence in recent years. Cardinals fans will remember all too well the images of the 6’4″, 229lb Metcalf hunting Budda Baker over 90 yards last year. His long, sturdy frame allows him to box out smaller, less lengthy cornerbacks in contested catch situations. A division rival, the Cardinals will see Metcalf at least twice in 2021, and Russell Wilson has demonstrated absolute trust in Metcalf’s propensity to physically dominate his opposition. The group will be tested all year, but these two players will prove if the Cardinals’ undersized corners are up to the task.
Not The Size of The Dog…
For all of his coverage ability, Patrick Peterson was sometimes criticized for his lack of physicality. In this new crop of players, the Cardinals have made a conscious effort to improve the aggression on their side. True throughout the roster, the new cornerbacks are no different. Malcolm Butler led all cornerbacks for tackles in 2020 with 100 total. Darqueze Dennard posted the 4th highest PFF tackling grade, regardless of position, in 2018. What the Cardinals cornerback room has lost in its physical profile, it has gained in innate aggression.
A system like Vance Joseph’s, predicated on confrontational, man-to-man press coverage, is the perfect scheme for dogged, undersized players like Butler and Alford. Focused on winning at the line of scrimmage, rather than at the point of the catch, is indicative of Joseph’s defensive philosophy, which is, in turn, reflected in the offseason acquisitions at cornerback. It may be a different look, and that difference may shake some Cardinals fans, but the new-look cornerback group is one that can win at the point of attack, disrupt passing concepts, and be far more effective against the run and screen game.
Embed from Getty Images