This week, the staff of AllCardinals breaks down each positional group as the Arizona Cardinals begin training camp at State Farm Stadium. In this third look, we evaluate the defensive backs
PROJECTED STARTERS: Malcom Butler (CB), CB Robert Alford, Byron Murphy Jr. (CB), Jalen Thompson (S), Budda Baker (S)
BACKUPS: Darqueze Dennard (CB), Chris Banjo (S), Deionte Thompson (S), Marco Wilson (CB), Shawn Williams (S)
ON THE BUBBLE/PRACTICE SQUAD: Tay Gowan (CB), Jace Whittaker (CB), Lorenzo Burns (CB), Picasso Nelson (CB), Tae Hayes (CB), Charles Washington (S), Jamal Carter (S)
The Arizona Cardinals ended last season in the middle of the pack on pass defense. The team was 10th in passing yards allowed, 14th in passing touchdowns and 18th in interceptions.
Patrick Peterson, who many would consider the face of the defensive back unit during his tenure with the team, has moved on to the Minnesota Viking after an unceremonious breakup. So how do the Cardinals expect to replace the production of arguably their No. 1 cornerback?
For starters, they brought in veteran Malcom Butler in free agency.
When looking at his numbers last year compared to Peterson, Butler has the edge in most passing categories. He allowed a passer rating of 83.2 when targeted, while Peterson's was an outrageous 98.2. And Butler's 14 passes defended was near the top of the leaderboard in the NFL.
Byron Murphy Jr. is expected to take another step forward, just like he has through his first two seasons. Last year, he improved by cutting down on penalties, helping the run game, and limiting passes down the field. There's no doubt he has the slot spot, which is essentially a starter these days, locked up. However, he could be called on for duty on the outside if Robert Alford has issues after not playing because of injuries the last two seasons.
The other lock in the defensive backfield is Budda Baker at safety.
The hard-hitting thumper is excellent when it comes to run support. His 90 solo tackles last year was tied for sixth in the NFL, while chipping in seven tackles for loss and three quarterback hits. PFF gave him a career-high grade (68.9) for his steady improvement in pass coverage.
The other safety spot is not as sure of a thing, but Jalen Thompson seems to have the edge for being Baker's running mate. The former fifth-rounder needs to prove he can stay on the field if he wants a shot at being a full-time safety.
Darqueze Dennard, Chris Banjo, Deionte Thompson, Marco Wilson, Shawn Williams all have the strongest cases to be backups come opening day.
Alford has the same questions as Jalen Thompson when it comes to health, considering he hasn't played since 2018. But the 32-year-old has more than enough starting experience under his belt to earn a starting job.
Darqueze Dennard was brought in as another corner with starting experience, and he fits coordinator Vance Joseph's defensive scheme perfectly.
If Jalen Thompson can't stay healthy, the other Thompson, Deionte, might have an inside track to a starting role. He showed some flashes last season, despite only playing less than a third of the defensive snaps. Entering only his third year, he could be in line for more playing time with a good camp.
As a fourth-round pick, early indications point to Marco Wilson getting solid opportunities in camp as the Cardinals evaluate how ready the rookie out of Florida is. He started 36 out of 37 games for a team that went to a bowl game three consecutive seasons.
Chris Banjo and Shawn Williams are two guys cut from the same cloth. Both have safety experience, and can step up in the short term if something happened to those ahead of them. Banjo played extensively last season when Jalen Thompson was out with an ankle injury. Still, their main talents are what they can provide the Cardinals on special teams, although Williams could also earn playing time from scrimmage.
The rest of the backfield is a mix of unproven young players and veterans trying to make a name for themselves. But like a lot of these previews, no one can be ruled out to make the team until everyone has been properly scouted.
This backfield should have a high floor at the very least. Outside of Butler, this is a starting unit with guys who have been in the organization for at least a couple of years.
The combination of Butler and Alford to go with Murphy could be even better than last year's duo. Butler is one of the most consistent corners every season, while Murphy has progressed every year of his career. And he's not the only one.
Baker has gotten better every year in pass coverage. If he can do it again and get 10% better in pass coverage, he has the makeup to be the most versatile safety in the NFL. He can beat anyone off the snap for a major blowup in the offensive backfield, or intercept the quarterback in the red zone and return it for 90 yards (before being caught).
Jalen Thompson is more theoretical than practical, but that's because we haven't really seen him on the field, although he was the starter entering 2020 when he was injured in the season opener. He has the talent and potential to be the running mate alongside Baker. We saw flashes of it his rookie season and he needs to put it all together for this unit to hit their ceiling.
Butler is 31 and the NFL isn't usually too kind to aging cornerbacks. But unlike Peterson, Butler doesn't have the same miles on his body despite being the same age. Butler came into the NFL at age 24, and only started one game his rookie year.
He just needs to fight off father time a little longer to help stabilize the defense for next season.
There is no debate Peterson was showing a lot of cracks in his defensive armor last year after being considered one of the premier corners in the league for a multi-year stretch. But despite the struggles, he still had the name-brand value, while drawing a majority of the tougher assignments. With him now in Minnesota, can Alford or possibly Murphy handle being potentially the No. 1 cornerback?
Teams will test Murphy more with Peterson gone. He'll need to accept the challenge for this defense to be as good as expected.
But the biggest question in this starting unit is simple: "Can Jalen Thompson be the answer to the Cardinals second safety spot?"
He's pegged as the other starter right now, but that is no guarantee; just like there is no guarantee he can stay healthy for a full season. Thompson, or whoever is in that second safety spot, and Alford are will be the biggest X-factors to whether the Cardinals pass defense can reach their celling.
Starting Defensive Backs
Losing Patrick Peterson sounds bad, but it can actually be an "addition by subtraction" situation.
At this point of their careers, it wouldn't be shocking if Butler is a clear upgrade over Peterson. Another year of seasoning for Baker and Murphy should only help their development as the two continue to grow together as the anchors of the defense.
Yes, they are a lot of questions surrounding Alford and Thompson's health. But if they are able to make it through a full season as starters, it will be a major step up over the carousel of defensive backs thrown out last season to complement Peterson and Baker.
The odds of the Cardinals being a top-five pass coverage unit in the NFL doesn't seem very likely. Of coursse, having an even better pass rush can help. But with Butler coming in, and Thompson potentially taking over, this starting group has enough upside to be borderline top 10, if not slightly better.
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