Through 15 seasons, Larry Fitzgerald has usually found more definition in the wide receiver room.
“This is the first camp I’ve been to in a long time where there is just a lot of uncertainty of where everybody is going to be,” Fitzgerald said.
The argument can be made – and a strong one at that – that the Cardinals haven’t had this much uncertainty up to the No. 2 receiver spot since the year before Fitzgerald was even in the NFL.
After Fitzgerald, there are a host of possibilities to be the second target. Holdover and deep threat J.J. Nelson. Last year’s third-round pick Chad Williams. Free agent Brice Butler. This year’s second-round pick Christian Kirk.
None have the experience and/or production that normally would come with such a role. So someone has to prove it.
“It brings the best out of everybody,” said Butler, who couldn’t crack the top three rotation when he was in Dallas. “I’m pretty sure there are 10 other guys in the room vying for that No. 2 or No. 3 spot. It’ll make for a great camp.”
In 2003, the Cardinals went into camp with a host of wide receiver questions starting at the top of the depth chart. Rookie Anquan Boldin emerged, as it turned out, as the team’s No. 1 receiver.
By the next year, Fitzgerald arrived to be No. 2 behind Boldin. Then he quickly teamed with Boldin to be 1 and 1A until Boldin was traded before the 2010 season. Since then, it’s been fairly easy to name a No. 2 when the Cardinals came to camp, locking someone behind Fitzgerald. Steve Breaston was the guy in 2010 and 2011. Andre Roberts was it in 2012. Michael Floyd emerged in 2013 all the way through his final season of 2016, and at this time last year, John “Smokey” Brown was the obvious pick.
That isn’t to say those players were necessarily able to perform as expected all the way through the season. But there was not a search process going on in camp.
Not until now.
“It’ll be interesting to see who rises in training camp,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “I think it’s going to fun to watch that shake out. Regardless of who is 2, 3, 4, 5, there is a lot of talent in that room and a lot of guys that can make plays when the ball is in their hands.”
Perhaps the two most pleasant surprises of camp are guys who still are a long shot to be No. 2. Veteran Greg Little has a chance to resurrect his career and has looked impressive since showing up in Arizona. Undrafted rookie Trent Sherfield out of Vanderbilt has also earned praise multiple times.
As for further up the depth chart, while coach Steve Wilks and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy want to see players perform in preseason games, Wilks remains confident in his choices.
“Just because the perception is that there are no big-time names there doesn’t mean there are no good players,” Wilks said.
As a rookie, Williams saw a room laid out one through four – Fitz, Smokey Brown, Nelson, Jaron Brown – before he even arrived. This year carried with it a much different feeling.
“It’s not just who is the fastest or who can catch the best,” Williams said. “You can run the best routes but if you don’t know what to do, coach McCoy is not going to put you in there.”
Someone needs to plug in across from Fitzgerald. Running back David Johnson, as he turned out to be in 2016, could end up being the Cardinals’ second-leading pass catcher. Tight end Ricky Seals-Jones will get his share of targets. But the Cards will have to turn to a receiver besides Fitz at some point. That job is up for grabs.
“That’s exciting,” Fitzgerald said, “to see guys fight for their livelihood, fight for every rep and opportunity.”
Images from the sixth workout of training camp, held outside.