New cornerback William Gay (23) tries to keep up with wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in a recent practice. Gay is one of a handful of players fighting to start at cornerback.
FLAGSTAFF – In his mind, defensive coordinator Ray Horton has already done some math.
He can mentally go over the cornerbacks and pick out who he thinks will be No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4. He isn't giving out any names – "I just need them to prove it to me one way or the other," he said – but raw numbers are enough.
The Cardinals have a lot more than four legitimate candidates for cornerback. They have more candidates than roster spots. And the players can do the math too.
"They know it," Horton said. "They can count."
Five players have started multiple NFL games – Patrick Peterson, William Gay, Greg Toler, Michael Adams and A.J. Jefferson. The Cardinals took Jamell Fleming in the third round of the draft. And Crezdon Butler was a waiver pickup last year who got hurt early in the season but has experience in the defense after playing for Horton in Pittsburgh.
"It's tough, battling for playing time, even battling for a spot on the team," Peterson said. "But that is the nature of the game."
Peterson is the lock, the guy who will be the Cards' top corner (although he won't say that, protesting "I honestly don't think I'm necessarily safe.") After that, there are many directions with which to go.
Gay signed as a free agent after Richard Marshall performed so solidly in his one Arizona season. Marshall departed himself as a free agent, and Gay goes into his sixth season with experience in the scheme as a former Steeler and a versatility like Marshall to be able to fill in at safety if need be. He's the one getting the first-team reps thus far.
Toler was the starter before tearing knee ligaments in the preseason last year, and Jefferson also started the first half of the season before being benched. Adams, meanwhile, continues to defy odds as a 5-foot-7 cornerback thanks not only to his special teams prowess but also as one of the best tacklers on the team – a skill important to Horton.
"Everyone wants to compete and start, but that's not the main focus," Gay said. "You want a good group, so if a team comes at us with more than two or three receivers, we have quality corners that can match that.
"Out of a whole game, say there are 70 defensive plays, your third corner is going to play 30 to 45 plays. Everybody's goal in the league is to be a starter as soon as you get to the league, but the way the game has evolved, there are a lot of ways to be involved."
The notion is important to remember. Even aside from an injury that might happen, today's pass-happy NFL demands multiple cornerbacks. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has said countless times when asked about the position that he can't ever have too many of them.
Gay isn't going anywhere and Fleming, given his draft status, is safe barring an unforeseen preseason meltdown. Jefferson is an intriguing physical specimen who needs to show growth after his struggles last season, not shocking after going from practice squad to starter without an offseason. Adams simply sticks around year after year, and has been running as the top nickel guy.
Toler may be the wild card. To go from starter to reserve after tearing up his knee was understandable. It's possible the coaches – despite no offseason last year and a mere four weeks or so of the preseason before Toler got hurt – understand what Toler can do.
Toler isn't sure, but the fourth-year pro is worried about showing himself he's back before worrying about anyone else.
"I feel I need to prove it to myself," Toler said. "This is like my third year over again, this is my junior year like college. This is when I'm supposed to break out. Coaches will see what they see."
Whisenhunt said he thinks the group is deep enough that whoever is released, one or two of them will go on to play elsewhere. The math will get you every time.
"Someone," Horton said, "will rise up."