The Cardinals are counting on cornerback Justin Bethel to finally emerge as a starter this season.
More than a year removed from when it supposed to happen, long enough ago that Justin Bethel had both signed a large contract because of the promise he had as a cornerback and taken a paycut because of promise lost, he is the Cardinals’ starting cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson.
The fight that was supposed to develop in training camp with Brandon Williams or even newcomer Tramon Williams never really did. Bethel started atop the depth chart and finished there, with little fanfare and no real pronouncement he won the job.
Here Bethel is, finally healthy, after a solid preseason and training camp. He is at once improved but
unproven, a starter for as long as he shows he should be one.
“I haven’t done anything yet. Just getting to this position doesn’t mean anything. You have to get out there and make plays. If I go out and screw up the first couple of games, that could go away real fast.”
Bethel chuckled as he said it. If he feels any pressure, he doesn’t show it. He embraces the action he’ll inevitably face across from Peterson -- “You call it picked on,” Bethel said. “I call it chances to make plays” – and besides, it can’t get any harder than last year.
The foot injury that bothered him late in 2015 cracked again while working out in the spring of 2016. It not only sidelined him all offseason, it all but made practice a chore all season. Bethel said he wasn’t able to fully practice until three weeks were left in the regular season.
By then, his year at cornerback was a massive disappointment. Coach Bruce Arians called him a “failure-in-progress.” Bethel eventually had to readjust his contract (which will also allow him to be a free agent after this season.)
Bethel didn’t flinch. He got healthy. When he was in position to start at corner this year, he was ready.
“I’m a really laid-back guy,” Bethel said. “Obviously last year people tried to make a big deal out of the whole failure-in-progress thing, but I’m not the type to get flustered over something like that. It doesn’t change what I’ have to do and who I am. For me, just go out, do your thing, keep practicing, and at the end of the day things will work out.”
It showed throughout training camp and in the preseason.
“I think he’s holding his own so far,” Peterson said. “Although it is the preseason and he didn’t get much action, I definitely think he’s ready for the opportunity that’s about to present itself to him.”
Like Arians, Peterson believes Bethel has gotten much better locating the ball in the air – one of Bethel’s biggest previous flaws.
“He hasn’t given those up in a while,” Peterson said. “This defense, we can’t give up those balls.”
Said Arians, “He’s more than ready.”
How does the story end? Bethel’s replacement last year, Marcus Cooper, parlayed his chance into a Pro Bowl alternate nod and a big free-agent contract.
Bethel isn’t making any specific predictions, but he’s in a good place. The confidence is there.
“Once I’m out there ballin’ and making a lot of plays, if people want to jump on the bandwagon, it’ll be open,” Bethel said, smiling wide, all too aware of his backstory. “I’ll keep the bandwagon open for people.”