Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu drags down Vikings running back Adrian Peterson for a loss during a game last season.
On a defense where almost every player is a candidate for a blitz on every play, versatility is crucial, and in the secondary, it's a given.
"If you take Pat (Peterson) and the number one receiver out of it, we all kind of play corner, we all kind of play safety," said safety Tyrann Mathieu, perhaps the best embodiment of a hybrid player among the team's defensive backs.
The Cardinals could use a cornerback as they try to find a permanent solution to start across from Peterson. At safety, with the departure of Rashad Johnson, Deone Bucannon's residence at linebacker and Tony Jefferson going into the last year of his contract (as is
Mathieu), a young addition could help there too, although the Cardinals did sign Tyvon Branch – a safety who is fast enough to be used in coverage.
Looking for players who have the ability to slide both places is ideal.
"Interchangeable parts are the best thing because of the disguises that we run defensively," coach Bruce Arians said. "When you can do multiple things, especially with your safeties, you can do so many different things defensively – blitz, play man to man, post players, half-field players. As long as they can do all those things and not one is a box safety and one's a middle of the field safety, like the old traditional strong safety/free safety, you have so much more flexibility defensively."
The top defensive back in the draft, Florida State's Jalen Ramsey, played both safety and cornerback in college, and while he'll likely end up as a cornerback in the pros, he can do both. Ramsey, however, will be long gone by the time the Cardinals will pick. Clemson's T.J. Green, much more of a raw prospect, is another guy who could potentially play both spots.
It's important for defensive coordinator James Bettcher that his secondary – particularly the safeties – can tackle in space. That's
something Mathieu has proven excellence with, even given his smaller size.
Secondary versatility creates flexibility on two levels. Before the game even begins, the availability of secondary players who can play multiple roles allows the Cardinals to perhaps keep an extra defensive lineman active on game day to aid in the game plan. That doesn't include the variations play to play such versatility allows.
It's why the Cards actively seek out such players.
"The personnel dictates what you are going to do schematically," Bettcher said.
The team's safeties aren't the only ones who can toggle if necessary. When Arians arrived he told Justin Bethel he would concentrate on cornerback but until then Bethel had worked both spots and actually came out of college as a safety.
The way the college game as evolved with spread offenses and multiple receivers, safeties have to cover often anyway.
"It gives them a head start on what to expect when they get to the NFL," Mathieu said.
As for the Cardinals, secondary versatility "gives us great options," Mathieu added. "If someone gets hurt, someone else can step in and not be new to something because we do it so often and do it so well."
Images of the cornerbacks projected to be selected in the draft