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What were the Biggest Surprises of Arizona Cardinals Training Camp?

Which Cardinals and storylines have come out of nowhere to become a major factor?

NFL: Chicago Bears at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals have had a fascinating training camp.

From the wide receivers getting ripped to days off for pros like Dansby, Fitzgerald and Palmer and the injury newsfront there have been plenty of storylines.

But there’s been no greater storylines than these 5 surprises.

Let’s get into the players who are standing out and have built buzz throughout this preseason:

The Main Storylines:

  • Blaine Gabbert:

Gabbert was probably the most talked about and discussed part of the entire training camp process. When Arizona made the choice post-draft to bring in a player who was considered a washed-up bust to be their 3rd Quarterback and likely sit for a year, it caught attention. Even more was caught after Gabbert flat-out dominated the (albeit third-string) competition.

The fact that people started questioning if Gabbert should start over the entrenched Stanton was indeed a surprise to many, even as Arians cemented Stanton’s spot at the #2. The big question is—will this be the one time Gabbert surprises? Or will Gabbert continue to impress into 2018 and the future of the position?

  • Robert Nkemdiche

The second-year player was counted on to replace Calais Campbell. And after a rookie season in which he rarely played and pundits questioned his work ethic, Nkemdiche demonstrated explosive moves and looked like the player the Cardinals drafted.

But it wasn’t just that. It was the consistency and fact that he looked like the best defensive lineman on the roster before his calf strain, when many expected nothing from him.

  • The Rise of Belief in the #2 CB spot

Entering camp, the big question most Cardinals fans would have pointed to the 2nd corner spot as a big hole on the team, enough where an Undrafted player named Ronald Zamort was slotted in as the first-team at one point...and promptly went down. Rather, the addition of Tramon Williams and Justin Bethel’s consistent play has turned the position into one of strength.

Even Brandon Williams’ solid practices and games has given the team a good 3rd option, and he rebounded since his INT against the Cowboys and has looked like a solid corner in both the run and pass game since. The position may have gone from one of weakness to strength, making it the opposite of...

  • The Fall of Faith in the Wideouts

Well, that escalated quickly.

In what was considered a position of strength, the Cardinals wide receivers not named Fitzgerald or Jaron quickly found their way into Bruce Arians’ doghouse. John Brown’s injury likely being the main catalyst for this shocking development.

Arians’ “I thought we had twelve, we might have two” comments went viral, and even as camp wraps up the status of John Brown’s health feels up in the air and with few other receivers performing as expected, this might be the biggest story for the team moving into the regular season.

The Best of the Rest:

  • Jaron Brown

The 5th year wide receiver was a pleasant surprise coming off of an ACL, and cemented the #2 receiver spot during John Brown’s time out. While JOHN is arguably the more talented Brown, Jaron’s consistency and health has been what Arians has wanted, and Carson Palmer believes that Jaron could “catch 70 ballls this season”. That would be an even bigger surprise, but it’s fair to think that no one expected this for a guy coming off of an ACL.

  • Dorian Johnson

Many believed after he was drafted that Dorian Johnson would challenge for the

  • Andre Ellington

After T.J. Logan went down, a roster spot suddenly opened up for Andre Ellington, who’s looked as close to his old self as he has in years as a running back. He doesn’t have the explosiveness around the edge that he used to, but he’s gone from a “sure cut” to likely a lock for the 53, something that very few predicted to begin camp.

  • Troy Niklas

“He’s still not hurt yet?” is probably what most Cardinals fans have been thinking throughout this preseason. But in addition to Niklas staying he’s also demonstrated himself as a capable blocker and has even made a living catching a few passes per game (and per practice) over the middle, and scoring a touchdown in a preseason game. If he manages to snag 3-4 targets a game and gather some touchdowns, putting the words “fantasy football” and “Troy Niklas” together might be a slight surprise.

Deep Surprise Sleepers

  • Ironhead Gallon

Despite having one of the coolest names in the national football league, as a UDFA, Ironhead Gallon was no guarantee of much anything for the Cardinals. Now, after a training camp in which he quickly learned the defense and a solid preseason, he’s in contention for the 53. I’d say get to know his name, but with a name like Ironhead Gallon, it’s already indelible in the mind of Cardinals fans.

  • Olsen Pierre outplaying Rodney Gunter?

Pierre’s solid play has been no surprise. But his rise to rotating in with the first team with Robert Nkemdiche out certainly is. He and Nkemdiche have looked like the best, while it’s been crickets when it comes to Rodney Gunter. Pierre not only making the 53 but becoming a rotational player won’t be a surprise to those who’ve been following him. However, his ascent has happened quickly.

  • Cap Capi

“Who?” is what many saw when they looked at the new #42 on the Cardinals roster that replaced more recognizable names like Alani Fu’a and Jarvis Jones. Yet Capi has been nothing if not consistent as an outside linebacker and is a far liklier player to make the roster rather than...

  • Jarvis Jones and Aaron Dobson

Jones and Dobson were considered by many to make up the back end of the Cardinals roster as veteran depth. Both got hurt and, frankly, outplayed by other younger players and could be looking at trying to catch on with a new team soon.

  • Josh Bynes

“Josh Bynes might be the Keim Time sign that makes an impact this year.”

Said no one ever. And it looks like they were all wrong. Bynes came in and immediately proved an upgrade in coverage from Scooby Wright (before he got hurt) and might prove to see some time as Haason Reddick continues to develop and Deone Bucannon/Karlos Dansby are hurt.

  • Jeremy Ross

At the start of training camp, the final 6 receivers seemed to be a lock: Fitzgerald, Brown, Brown, Chad Williams, J.J. Nelson and Brittan Golden. Maybe that’s what it finally ends up as.

But Jeremy Ross has likely played himself into position where he might be the one pushing Nelson or Golden off of the final 53. He’s done well enough on special teams and has played well in preseason, catching most everything thrown his way and has size the other two don’t.

Ross could be in line for a job and Arians won’t think twice about letting a less talented player walk. If Ross makes the roster ahead of some of the bigger names at WR for the Cardinals, then it’ll be truly a surprise. If just because the team could potentially be saying goodbye to long-time veteran Brittan Golden or a 5th round pick in J.J. Nelson.

We won’t know, however, until the final 53 are set.

Bonus: The Heir Apparent?

Let’s put aside just the lens of players and look at the Cardinals organization as a whole. There was one figure who had a quick ascendence and rise faster than any other player or figure in the entire preseason from nothing.

And it’s not a player.

It’s Byron Leftwich.

Leftwich went from being a coaching intern last season with the team (basically giving coaches a tryout) to the Quarterbacks Coach (despite being younger than starting QB Carson Palmer) to being the play caller in not one, but two preseason games.

In player terms, this would be like an undrafted free agent (albeit with high pedigree) in their 2nd year getting reps with the 1’s and potentially being looked at as the future of the position.

(So maybe similar to what Blaine Gabbert has done this preseason)

Leftwich has had a faster ascendency than long-time offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, and many are beginning to wonder if there’s a different head coach in mind for the team once Bruce Arians hangs it up.

Goodwin has seemed that heir apparent for years. Is it possible that we could be looking at the future head coach of the Cardinals standing on the sideline? Perhaps it’s still too soon to be thinking about such things.

But it’s still definitely a surprise to see how quickly it’s all happened with Leftwich and the praise heaped on him, not to mention how well he executed the playcalling in the games.

To me, this was the biggest surprise of the entire training camp.

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