Cardinals rookie Brandon Williams (26) is one of several new faces in the secondary in 2016.
Harlan Miller has gotten off easy.
The cornerback’s rookie initiation has peaked at part-time food delivery guy, as he can often be found carrying multiple paper bags into the Cardinals’ practice facility, filled with breakfast or lunch for his fellow defensive backs.
“It’s usually Chick-fil-A,” the sixth-round pick said. “Six chicken sandwiches, a large fry, a mini (sandwich) tray and a large frosted coffee for Pat (Peterson).”
Compare that to the rookie offensive linemen, who had to dress up in holiday-themed outfits on the team’s plane ride to Seattle. Evan Boehm was Santa Claus. Cole Toner was an elf. Givens Price was Olaf from Frozen.
Maybe the Cardinals young defensive backs are catching a break because their cohorts forgot what it was like to bring in new blood.
The secondary has long been one of the team’s strengths, and from 2013 to 2015, it was unusually stable. Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Jerraud Powers, Rashad Johnson, Justin Bethel and Tony Jefferson all remained in a secondary dubbed the “No Fly Zone,” and while others trickled in and out, they were the core.
This year was always going to be different, as Johnson and Powers departed in free agency, veteran Tyvon Branch was signed, D.J. Swearinger settled into a bigger role, Marcus Cooper was added via trade and Miller and Brandon Williams were drafted. But because of injuries, few could have predicted the overhaul that has recently taken place.
Miller played in his first NFL game in Sunday’s 34-31 win over the Seahawks and did so at a foreign position, filling in at safety when Jefferson hurt his knee. Williams and Bethel also played significant roles after rarely seeing the field previously.
They could all be needed again Sunday against the Rams, and their backups will include Trevon Hartfield, Brian Dixon and Christian Bryant, players recently added because Branch, Jefferson and Mathieu have been moved to injured reserve.
“Me and (defensive backs coach Nick) Rapone were talking after the game, after we won,” Peterson said. “He said, ‘Patrick, I hate to say it, but I don’t know any guy’s name but yours and D.J.’s.’”
The Cardinals have a favorable matchup in the finale, going against Rams rookie quarterback Jared Goff and a struggling offense. However, the defensive backs have issues of their own with so much inexperience.
Arians is looking forward to evaluating Miller and Williams further, and believes game action is critical to do so.
“You want to see if the lights are too big, if they’re too bright for them,” Arians said. “It wasn’t for Harlan and he got thrown into a really severe situation. Brandon just gets better and better. He plays man-to-man press very well. (It’s) just teaching him off-coverage stuff, which he’s never had much experience at -- learning to play without staying way back.”
Miller and Williams could figure into next year’s rotation, depending how the offseason plays out. Peterson and Mathieu will again highlight the secondary, but Jefferson, Cooper and Swearinger are free agents.
“It’s been a long journey for me in my four years, but it came together,” said Swearinger, a former second-round pick who was cut twice before landing in Arizona. “I always talk about timing. It’s all on God’s timing. I believe my time was this year, and I made the best out of what I could make it. Going into free agency, I’m confident and just ready to see what my future brings.”
Swearinger doesn’t have a sense of where he will end up. This is the standard procedure in NFL locker rooms, players zipping in and out on a yearly basis, and it’s a reminder of how rare it was for the Cardinals to have such stability in the secondary for so long.
“It’s pretty weird to see a bunch of new faces, a ton of new numbers,” Peterson said. “You see a number and you call him the previous name. It’s like, ‘Aww, shoot, that’s not him.’ It’s pretty weird to see so many guys go down, but for these guys to step in and make plays for us, I’m happy to see that as well.”
Past images of the Cardinals playing the Rams in the Los Angeles Coliseum before they return there this week