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Patrick Peterson Goes Mental

Eye-opening 2014 season forced Cardinals' star cornerback to address biggest weakness


Patrick Peterson grabbed his cell phone, scrolled through a long list of contacts and found the text message he wanted.

"Let me show you something," the Cardinals' star cornerback said, clicking on a photo so it took up the entire screen. "One of my best friends just sent me this."

It was a portrait of Peterson, then a senior at Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach, Florida, on the cover of a local magazine. A splashy headline accompanied it, declaring the teenager NFL-ready before he played a down of college football.

"When I was in high school, that's what they used to say," said Peterson, a wry smile creeping across his face.

When young athletes excel, parents are quick to rein in their ballooning egos with the reminder that there will always be someone out there who is bigger, faster and better. To Peterson, that never really applied.

He was named USA Today's National Defensive Player of the Year his final year at Blanche Ely and was a five-star recruit.  He chose college powerhouse LSU and took over a starting role as a true freshman. He was the fifth pick in the 2011 NFL draft after running a 4.34 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting combine – at 6-feet and 219 pounds, no less – and has earned a Pro Bowl nod in each of his first five professional seasons.

With otherworldly athleticism gifted to him at birth, Peterson never knew what it felt like to be average – until a diabetes diagnosis zapped his superpower in 2014.

"When I wasn't able to do some things that I was accustomed to doing, it was very, very frustrating," Peterson said. "And it showed, because I would be there (in coverage), but I was this far away from making a play, versus this year when they ran those comebacks, I'm knocking them down every time. So it was very, very frustrating to go through that season, but at the same time, it was an eye-opener for me. And I believe it's something that I needed to help me become a better professional."

After three impressive campaigns to start his career, Peterson signed a five-year, $70 million contract before the 2014 season which made him the NFL's highest-paid cornerback. He made the Pro Bowl again that year, but it was based more on reputation than his play on the field.

Peterson had standout moments – he shut down Dez Bryant in a key win over the Cowboys – but also struggled, most notably when Falcons star receiver Julio Jones caught 10 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown in an upset win over the Cardinals in Week 13.

While coach Bruce Arians intimated midway through the season that Peterson was facing a health problem, it didn't come out until later that he had been diagnosed with diabetes. Peterson gained a noticeable amount of weight before the disease was discovered, and suddenly the normally sleek, speedy cover man no longer made a mockery of the laws of physics.

Some of the best cornerbacks in the NFL don't have obscene athleticism – think Richard Sherman or Josh Norman – but still excel because they are technicians. During that stretch in 2014, Peterson tried to rely on smarts and technique instead of his natural talent, but was dealt a cold splash of reality.

"My weight didn't allow me to do some of the things I wanted to do, and at the same time, I wasn't mentally dialed into the game," Peterson said. "Being overweight and not able to fall back on that athletic ability, it was like, 'Damn.' You really have to know what these (offenses) are doing, because someday I'm going to get old, someday I'm not going to be as fast as I was or as dynamic an athlete as I was in previous years."

Peterson got his symptoms under control by the end of the 2014 season, and as the weight vanished, the elite speed and change of direction returned.

The trick moving forward was mastering the mental approach, and the brush with mediocrity kicked Peterson's urgency into high gear. Last summer, he picked the brains of former NFL cornerbacks Deion Sanders, Bryant McFadden and Rod Hood to increase his knowledge base.

"I was always athletic," Peterson said. "I was always physically gifted. It was time for me to put the classroom work onto the field, as far as, now I'm not out there guessing routes; now I'm watching more film; now I'm understanding how teams are attacking me; now I know what's going to come, versus guessing at what's going to come."

McFadden, a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Steelers and a former Cardinal, told Peterson to focus on the nuances of the position. He used film of standout cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Asante Samuel as a guide.

"When players come into the league with his talent and skillset, they overlook the mental game because they can be in a bad position and still make plays," McFadden said. "But you can only do that for a short time. Offensive coordinators watch film and they can attack you.

"It's easy for a guy as athletic as Pat to forget the little things, because he's thinking 'This is easy.' But expectations get higher the more success you have. He just needed to hone in on a couple things."

In 2015, the athletic freak added mental acuity, and it resulted in the best season of Peterson's career.

He drew the assignment of the opponent's No. 1 receiver every game, facing Calvin Johnson, Antonio Brown and A.J. Green, among others. Despite the supreme talent across from him, Peterson didn't allow more than four catches in a game all year and gave up more than 50 yards just once, per Pro Football Focus.

Peterson was named to the Associated Press' All-Pro team – Norman was the only other cornerback who received the honor – and to another Pro Bowl that, this time, was well deserved.

"We knew he had the physical tools, so once he took that part of it on and he grew mentally, that, to me, is what made Pat Peterson arguably the best cornerback in the league last year," Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim said.

As training camp starts Thursday for the Cardinals, the debate rages as to whether Peterson, Sherman or Norman deserves the moniker of the NFL's best cornerback. Peterson doesn't shy away from anointing himself as the top cover man, and he has age on his side.

Peterson turned 26 two weeks ago – he's more than two years younger than Sherman and Norman -- and is entering the sweet spot for a player: a veteran when it comes to mental preparation, yet still young enough to take advantage of it athletically.

"A bunch of the guys tell me now, 'Man, I wish I had your mentality, your mindset when I was 25 years old,'" Peterson said. "'I had this when I was 29, 30 years old. You can tell you're a true pro.'"

Peterson has never shied from lofty goals. He wants a Hall of Fame bust when his playing career ends. He wanted Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 – "Boy, was he close," McFadden said – and will take aim at it again this year.

In a league where the passing game has reached unparalleled heights, Peterson is the rare breed athletic enough to shut it down. Buoyed by the strides made in his mental preparation, the All-Pro may not be done ascending.

"2014 was an eye-opener in that he said, 'I still have a lot of room to grow,'" McFadden said. "And that's what we saw in 2015. I think the best is yet to come. I think what we saw in 2015 was scratching the surface."

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