NEW ORLEANS -- It does not take a detective to see the dichotomy between two of the Cardinals' recent draft classes.
The 2015 group could go down as one of the best in team history, as it features running back David Johnson, left tackle D.J. Humphries, defensive end Markus Golden, wide receiver J.J. Nelson and defensive tackle Rodney Gunter.
The 2016 class is in danger of being a misstep. Two of its members – safety Marqui Christian and guard Cole Toner – are gone. The other four – defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, cornerback Brandon Williams, guard/center Evan Boehm and recently re-signed safety Harlan Miller – have not made the impact expected after two seasons.
As the Cardinals head into their second preseason game on Friday night in New Orleans, roles are becoming more concrete, and the quartet is trying to become a part of the plan.
"Anytime you get into that third year, you want to be ready to perform at a high level if you haven't already and be ready to turn the corner," coach Steve Wilks said. "Nkemdiche, Brandon, all those guys – we're expecting those guys to step up this year."
Nkemdiche has the biggest spotlight as a former first-round pick. He has yet to record an NFL sack but is running with the first-team defense and is line for significant playing time. Wilks has lauded Nkemdiche's raw talent several times, but often with the caveat that he must see it translate.
While there is a lot of outside noise, Nkemdiche said the pressure comes from within.
"It's me wanting to be good, you know?" Nkemdiche said. "Me wanting to give back to all these guys who have put in work with me, and give back to the coaches and people who believe in me. Resting that case, and being the player I know I can be. It's not pressure, just, 'Come on. Take a step forward.'"
Nkemdiche believes the way to do that is by keeping a narrowed focus.
"It's a very simple concept," Nkemdiche said. "Go out there and be a dog, be a disruptive force. Play every play at extreme capacity."
Williams struggled at times in the preseason opener, and does not seem to be challenging veteran Jamar Taylor for the starting cornerback spot opposite Patrick Peterson. Williams said the switch from man coverage under Bruce Arians to a zone-heavy defensive scheme has him reeling.
"In man, it's more up to me with technique, using your athleticism," Williams said. "Zone is more thinking, like, what can happen before it happens. Getting that stuff faster can be the difference between an interception and a (pass breakup). That's something that I'm grasping. I'm trying to understand more route progressions and formations. I didn't have to do that my first two years."
Williams didn't play cornerback until his final season in college, which is why it doesn't surprise him that veterans like Taylor, cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Antoine Bethea are more comfortable in the defense. Williams said the key is to correct his issues quickly.
"I have to understand that I can't repeat the same things over and over again," Williams said. "Once I get bit, I can't get bit again. I've got to learn from that and keep going. I'm not perfect. I make mistakes sometimes, but for the most part, when I see it, then I understand it. I'm like, OK, when that situation comes up again, I know how to handle it better."
Boehm is not in line to start, as rookie Mason Cole took over the center spot after A.Q. Shipley tore his ACL, but is vying to be the main backup at the three interior offensive line spots.
For Nkemdiche, Williams and Boehm, the start to their careers have not gone as planned. Despite the hiccups, Boehm has urged his draft-mates to believe in themselves even as others are writing them off.
"We've gone against the Aaron Donalds," Boehm said. "We've gone against the No. 1 centers and guards. We've gone against the best wide receivers. Nothing surprises you. The confidence level has to be there."
Images from the final training camp practice on Wednesday afternoon