Safety Deone Bucannon isn't starting, but the rookie will play a big role in the Cardinals' defense.
The preseason can be a monotonous exercise for many NFL veterans who would gladly skip the pretense and fast forward to Week 1 if given the option.
It's a different story for young players, for whom the experience is invaluable. A turf toe injury sidelined first-round draft pick Deone Bucannon for a chunk of offseason workouts, which forced him to play catch-up in training camp. Gradually he made strides, and the final two preseason games gave the Cardinals a glimpse of his potential.
Bucannon finished with a team-high seven tackles, including one for loss, against the Bengals on Aug. 24, amassing
the best individual grade on the team for his performance, according to Pro Football Focus. He followed it up with eight tackles in the preseason finale against the Chargers in just over a quarter of play.
Bucannon was one of the few key cogs to see time against San Diego, and it didn't take long to satisfy the expectations of coach Bruce Arians.
"He knows his job," Arians said. "He plays fearless. He's more than ready to go. I wanted to get him out of there as soon as I could."
While he's expected to begin the season as a reserve on defense, Bucannon has carved out a role for himself at both safety and linebacker. He's big enough to play in the box but also quick enough to cover wide receivers in space.
The whole package tantalized the Cardinals when they chose Bucannon in May, and he's beginning to live up to that potential. Bucannon credits his fellow defensive backs for the progress.
"Each time I come to the sideline they just tell me little things to watch out for to get more comfortable," Bucannon said. "It really helps when I'm out there. Ty (Mathieu) is right next to me. Every time I come off the field, he asks what I'm seeing. It's little things for me to get better, and that's what's really been helping me.
"I'm understanding the defense better, and what the coaches want out of me, what they expect out of me. That's
allowed me to go out there and play faster for the team."
Bucannon admitted it was a surprise when defensive coordinator Todd Bowles originally moved him to linebacker in certain passing situations. However, it was a way to get more playing time early, and Bucannon embraced it. He said the new perspective closer to the line of scrimmage has helped him understand both positions better.
"I try to absorb as much information as possible, so I can be the best 'money' (linebacker) I can be, so I can be the best safety I can be," Bucannon said. "'Money' has a lot to do with the safety role, because if I can understand what's going on at linebacker, that will make me better at safety."
Mathieu calls Bucannon a "physical specimen" who has the potential to be a dominant player. Now that Bucannon's mind is catching up to his body, he has a chance to make an impact as a rookie.
"I just think he's relaxing more," Mathieu said. "When you come into training camp, it's not quite like college. You just practice in college. Here it's practice and games, so he's definitely settled down, gotten into the playbook, and now he can play fast and not focus on what play is being called."
There's no question the preseason games have helped Bucannon find his footing with the Cardinals, and now comes the next step. Beginning with the nationally televised Monday Night Football game against the Chargers in a week, Bucannon must be ready for the intricate game plans and increased intensity of the regular season.
"It's a new level, and I'm excited for it," Bucannon said.
The 53 players who currently make up the Cardinals' roster