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Justin Bethel Becomes Special Player

Former sixth-round pick still hoping to break out as cornerback

Cornerback Justin Bethel blocks a field goal against Houston last weekend.

The 24 snaps Justin Bethel played for the Arizona Cardinals last weekend were 41 fewer than tight end Jim Dray, 20 fewer than backup linebacker Marcus Benard and 13 fewer than reserve wide receiver Jaron Brown.

For Bethel, though, it's quality over quantity right now. And there is little argument about the quality the second-year special teams star has delivered.

"When you look at offensive players and defensive players and determine they are difference-makers, that is where you start saying, 'This guy is a core piece of our team,' " General Manager Steve Keim said. "Justin Bethel, he is an absolute difference-maker on special teams. He is a guy with a unique skill and unique ability to change games on special teams. He is a guy we feel is a core member of our team."

That's not an easy label to earn. Every year a team hopes to have a few key players who are on the roster for special teams, and the Cardinals are no different. Their push to the Super Bowl a few years ago was helped by Pro Bowl special teamer Sean Morey. Michael Adams and LaRod Stephens-Howling, while each helping out on defense and offense, respectively, made their mark and biggest contributions on special teams.

That can also be a flaw in the bigger picture of staying long-term. Bethel is a cornerback, and the Cardinals hope he will

eventually develop into steady defensive player. With vets like Antoine Cason and Javier Arenas on the roster, Bethel isn't needed on defense these days, but at some point, that figures to be a necessary part of the equation.

"Really I try not to think about it too much," Bethel said. "I try to get better in practice. I try to show them if something does happen (to other cornerbacks) they don't have to worry about it. Special teams, it's what I do. I enjoy it, and this year, I have the chance to maybe go to the Pro Bowl, so I focus on doing what I can."

Right now, that's plenty. Bethel blocked an end-of-the-first-half field goal try by Houston last weekend, an off-the-edge play that was Bethel's second of his career. Add in his team-high 10 special teams tackles and four downed punts inside the 10-yard line – in addition to numerous nice plays as the first man down on punts – and his worth is tangible.

Coach Bruce Arians said he can't think of anyone he's ever been around better because Bethel excels at every aspect of special teams.

"Few guys in the league are like Justin, in my humble opinion," Keim said. "I think he is a special teams Pro Bowl-caliber talent. It would be nice to see him progress as a positional player but at the same time, with what he brings to the table on special teams, you always have room for a guy like that on your roster."

It would help, Keim acknowledged, to have Bethel develop as a cornerback, however.

Bethel tried to imagine life as a cornerback in heavy rotation in addition to his special-teams duties. It would be difficult, given the many times he is sprinting 60 yards full speed to make a play. That said, he would like to try it.

"Truthfully, I feel I am just as good as some of the guys out there (at corner)," Bethel said. "When I am at practice, I am making plays and I am playing against our first-team offense all the time. Going against Larry (Fitzgerald) all the time gets you up to speed fast. My technique is a lot better. Whenever they need me, I will go out and play."

The potential is there, Keim said. But Bethel's special teams work has made the former sixth-round pick a quality draft choice regardless.

Even with a snap count that is limited.

"Every game my goal is to make a splash play," Bethel said. "Do something that impacts that game. If I don't do that, I feel like I didn't have a good game."

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