Heading into the 2013 season, outside receivers reigned supreme in the NFL.
Stars like Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Dez Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald made their living out wide, so it was a surprise when Bruce Arians came to Arizona and shook things up.
He moved Fitzgerald to the slot, and needed to sugarcoat the switch to get his star pass-catcher on board with the idea.
“He told me there were 100 balls a year in there, so I told him, ‘I’m good with that,’” Fitzgerald said Thursday with a laugh.
The slot receiver position has only gained in importance in the ensuing half-decade, and it is going to play a critical role in the Cardinals’ contest on Sunday against Arians and the Buccaneers. The Cardinals’ two best wide receivers, Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk, reside in the slot, as does Tampa Bay star Chris Godwin.
Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury – who spent a second-round pick on 5-foot-9 slot receiver Andy Isabella in April – routinely weaponized the position in college and has seen it become a hot commodity at the professional level.
“In this league – I’m still kind of figuring it out – I know spread offenses are getting more and more prevalent, and that’s a position that’s a big part of it,” Kingsbury said. “Being able to get those guys in space and turn three-yard completions into big plays. College football has been doing that for quite some time, and it’s starting to be more prevalent in the league.”
Godwin is fifth in the NFL with 766 receiving yards and has six touchdowns. The Cardinals will be without nickelback Tramaine Brock (hamstring) on Sunday, so their ability to contain Godwin will be under the microscope. Kingsbury didn’t specifically say who would guard the slot, although the most likely candidates seem to be Kevin Peterson and Byron Murphy.
“Kevin Peterson will play more,” Kingsbury said. “We’ll have a rotation going, but he will definitely play more.”
Godwin was mostly an outside receiver in his first two seasons with the Buccaneers, but it was an easy sell to get him into the slot. All Arians had to do was point to the success of Fitzgerald, who averaged more than 1,000 receiving yards per season during Arians’ five-year tenure in Arizona.
“He solidified my career,” Fitzgerald said. “When he got here, people were saying I was done, in ’13. To be able to do what I was able to do under his tutelage, and just believing in him, and putting my complete trust and confidence in him. He never lied to me one time, and we were able to do some really good things together.”
JUSTIN MURRAY QUESTIONABLE TO PLAY AGAINST BUCCANEERS
Right tackle Justin Murray (knee) didn’t practice this week and has been listed as questionable for the game. Justin Pugh is expected to fill in at right tackle for the second straight contest if Murray cannot go, with Mason Cole at left guard.
Max Garcia (knee) was activated from the physically-unable-to-perform list this week and is projected to be a backup on game day.
Outside linebacker Brooks Reed hurt his hamstring on Friday and has been placed on injured reserve. Running back Chase Edmonds (hamstring) and defensive end Zach Allen (neck) also will not play.
Safety Deionte Thompson injured his knee on Friday and is listed as questionable, as is outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Running back David Johnson (ankle) practiced fully all week and does not have an injury designation after sitting the past two games.
For the Buccaneers, cornerback Carlton Davis (hip), linebacker Carl Nassib (groin) and linebacker Anthony Nelson (hamstring) won’t play.
REDDICK STILL TRYING TO FIND NICHE
The addition of Zach Brown last week seemed to add some competition to the inside linebacker role alongside Jordan Hicks. Haason Reddick had already lost his playing time on base downs to Joe Walker, and Brown’s specialty was in pass coverage.
However, the Cardinals quickly released Brown, which keeps Reddick in his subpackage role. Kingsbury was asked what the team’s 2017 first-round pick needs to do to carve out his niche on defense.
“I think that’s up for him to decide, with how he performs on the field,” Kingsbury said. “Very talented. Has made a bunch of plays. He’s been moved around a bunch. Different schemes so far in his career. The athleticism is there. He shows up, he flashes, he makes plays, so we’ll keep working.”
Images from practice at the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center