On Thursday, the Cardinals’ offseason took a turn with a report that the All-Pro cornerback has been suspended for the first six games of the 2019 season for a violation of the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Peterson will be eligible to return in Week 7, on Oct. 20 against the Giants.
The ninth-year pro is one of the few corners who can travel with any type of wide receiver outside, and with some inside if it’s man coverage. Now for the first six games of the season, the Cardinals lack that multi-purpose presence on the defensive side of the ball. Fortunately for Arizona, the team faces the Lions, Ravens, Panthers and Seahawks in Weeks 1-4—and none of those teams have a mega receiving weapon worth losing sleep over (though Kenny Golladay for the Lions and Tyler Lockett for the Seahawks pose challenges). It could get dicey in Weeks 5 and 6, as the Cards travel to Cincinnati (A.J. Green) and then host Atlanta (Julio Jones).
But it’s not just about losing the player who will cover the top receiver for six games—it’s the domino effect that comes with it. The Cardinals can set their coverages around Peterson. They can tilt safeties away from their top corner and, as the Bruce Arians regime used to do, have Peterson play iso-man coverage outside while everyone else plays zone inside. That shrinks the field to favor the D.
Arizona has some options to help to navigate Peterson’s absence. After suffering for years with a glaring weakness at No. 2 corner, they paid $22.5 million over three years to get Robert Alford, who was released in February by the Falcons. Recall that in 2016 Alford filled in marvelously for top corner Desmond Trufant during Atlanta’s Super Bowl run. His versatility to cover outside or in the slot could be extra crucial, especially these first six weeks, because it allows the Cards to keep No. 33 overall pick Byron Murphy, an off-coverage corner, in one position, if they decide that will best aid the rookie’s learning process.
It’s a little unusual for a team to pay notable starter money for a corner and then draft another with the 33rd pick, especially if that team already has a true No. 1 corner. One has to wonder if the Cardinals have known for a while that they might be without Peterson for a period of time this season. Most GMs probably would not make major moves just to cover the team for six games, but in Arizona, GM Steve Keim, who is likely in a make-or-break year, has never invested heavily in cornerback depth before. New head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s defensive coordinator, Vance Joseph, is zone-based but with flexibility to shift to man coverage. He may have to hold off on that until Week 7.
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