Cardinals cornerbacks Justin Bethel (left) and Brandon Williams in the 2016 regular season finale against the Rams.
The past 12 months have been a roller coaster for Justin Bethel and Brandon Williams, and just like the theme-park rides, they've arrived back where they started.
Most considered it lip service when Cardinals coach Bruce Arians spoke confidently about his two embattled cornerbacks earlier this offseason. Surely, the majority believed, an outside replacement would be found once starter Marcus Cooper left for the Bears in free agency.
But the Cardinals didn't strike for a veteran on the open market – at least at this point -- and they passed on all options over the first two days of a cornerback-heavy draft. The Cardinals took Auburn's Rudy Ford in the sixth round on Saturday, but like most late picks, he's a project for now.
And so, after they each held and subsequently lost the starting job opposite Patrick Peterson in the past calendar year, Bethel and Williams are back splitting first-team repetitions as offseason work commences.
"I wasn't sure what they were going to do (in the draft), but at the end of the day, for me it didn't really matter," Bethel said. "If they brought in somebody, that's good because we've got another young guy that we can build up over time that's going to help the team. And if not, I'm still going to do what I've got to do on the field and work my (butt) off to try to get the position that I want."
Between Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Antoine Bethea and second-round pick Budda Baker, the Cardinals have an intriguing nucleus in the secondary, but one that can only reach its full potential if the second cornerback spot is solidified.
Bethel and Williams have been shaky enough in the past that it wouldn't be a surprise to see General Manager Steve Keim sign a veteran or consider a trade, but the duo feels like that isn't necessary.
While Williams flashed his potential in training camp last year – enough to secure the starting spot heading into the season -- his inexperience showed in games, from a critical communication error in the opener against the Patriots to technical issues later on.
A converted running back, Williams admits he was a fish out of water as a rookie, and he's spent the past few months dialing in to the position's intricacies.
"Training, training, training, man," Williams said. "And not your typical training. DB stuff. Getting my body to fatigue and still hold my technique. That's the biggest thing for me. It's easy to do when you're energized, but it's hard to do over four quarters of a game, especially in the NFL. That's really what I did this offseason: backpedal, press, film."
Bethel's career arc was encouraging heading into last offseason, as he progressed from a special teams ace to the presumptive starter at cornerback once the team signed him to a three-year contract extension. But Bethel was in a boot at this time last year, and the fracture in his foot lingered throughout the season.
Bethel struggled when he did play, failing to cement himself as a reliable defensive option and getting labeled a "failure in progress" by Arians. The Cardinals approached him about a paycut this offseason, and Bethel accepted it, with the caveat that the final year would be lopped off the contract, making him a free agent at the end of this season.
Bethel could have considered asking for an outright release and get a change of scenery, but his desire was to remain with the team.
"It was just one of those things where we made it beneficial for both of us," Bethel said. "Obviously I love Arizona and I want to be here. That's one of the reasons I stayed. Everybody knows I want to prove to the team what I can do, and that it was a good decision to pay me when they did pay me."
Even though Williams didn't deal with as much turbulence as Bethel, he's also entering a critical season. A year ago, Williams had never backpedaled before and was learning everything on the fly. He's excited to prove he's now a legitimate option.
"I'm very pumped up," Williams said. "It's different now. It's easy to downplay somebody who doesn't understand what they're doing. But it's a different ballgame when that person starts to understand, starts to get a grasp of how things go. And then you really see who's about it and who's not."