Arizona Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel is entering his fifth NFL season. He’s a three-time Pro Bowler on special teams but now looks to take over as a starter in the secondary. As he recovers from offseason foot surgery, both he and his coaches expect big things in 2016.
Waiting patiently on the sidelines due to an offseason foot surgery, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel can’t help but to look ahead. It may still be in the early stages of Organized Team Activities (OTAs), but Bethel recognizes that as training camp looms, so to does an incredible opportunity.
With Jerraud Powers now calling the Baltimore Ravens home, Bethel is next in line to take over as one of the team’s starting cornerbacks. And as he sees it, he can transfer his special teams prowess to the defensive backfield and help take his game – and the team’s game – to the next level in 2016.
“I think I’m capable of being a great starting corner,” Bethel, a converted safety, told ArizonaSports.com. “Last year was my first year of really going out there and playing. I think for me the biggest thing is just getting that feel of it and getting more comfortable in the position.
“Once I get enough time playing it, especially during training camp and getting those reps, I’ll be more comfortable at it and I’ll just keep getting better and better.”
Although Bethel may be thinking big, there’s still quite a bit of development that needs to take place.
Going into the 2015 season, Bethel had only 103 defensive snaps under his belt. But due to injuries to both Tyrann Mathieu and Powers, he was thrust into action — particularly down the stretch — seeing 419 defensive snaps a season ago.
Ultimately, Bethel set career highs in tackles (46), forced fumbles (4) and interceptions (2), with one of those interceptions being returned for a touchdown (Week 3 vs. San Francisco 49ers). And while the experience was an important building block, it also proved Bethel has a ways to go before becoming “great.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Bethel was targeted 34 times during his four starts, which was most in the NFL over any similar span. He was also targeted 22 times in Week 16 and Week 17 combined, which again, led the NFL.
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The results were mixed.
Against the Green Bay Packers in Week 16, Bethel was targeted 14 times, giving up seven receptions for 75 yards. However, Bethel also had eight tackles and an interception in the game as the Cardinals cruised to victory.
In Week 17 against the Seattle Seahawks, Bethel was targeted eight times, giving up a handful of receptions, including a 45-yarder and a 24-yarder. After the game, he acknowledged he played poorly.
It was a rough way to end the 2015 season and things didn’t get much better as he headed for foot surgery, but 2016 is a different year with a different set of expectations.
“I’ve been making strides every year,” Bethel said. “And so going out there knowing I’m 100 percent and knowing I don’t have anything to worry about (and) anything breaking while I’m out there, I’m just ready to go out there mentally, physically and be way better than I was the year before.”
There’s little doubt Bethel has the tools and athletic ability necessary to become successful in the NFL, but “greatness” may still be a year or two away. There’s bound to be a learning curve and some bumps along the way, but don’t be surprised when he eventually gets where he wants to go.