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Cardinals’ depth at safety will lead to intense roster battles but tough decisions for Steve Keim

NFL: Arizona Cardinals Minicamp The Republic-USA TODAY NETWORK

With all eyes set on Arizona Cardinals’ training camp (the week of July 27th) after the conclusion of mandatory minicamp and OTAs, General Manager Steve Keim will have lots to look forward to but plenty of difficult decisions to make once final roster cutdowns arrive.

Though subjective, the Cardinals are the deepest at the safety position led by three-time Pro Bowler and two-time First-Team All-Pro Budda Baker.

After him, the roster battle at safety commences.

NFL: DEC 15 Browns at Cardinals Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

#34 Jalen Thompson

Jalen Thompson (5’11’’ 190lbs) was a quality addition by the Cardinals in the 2019 Supplemental Draft as a fifth-round selection. He had a respectable rookie year with 45 tackles and an interception but followed that up with an injury-riddled 2020 season. Thompson played two snaps in Week 1 against the 49ers before going down with an ankle injury that forced him to miss 11 games.

When he returned, the Cardinals felt his immediate impact in coverage and the tackling department. Thompson had a near interception against the Dolphins in Week 9 and made seven solo tackles against the Bills in Week 10. His injury concerns are warranted and fortunately the Cardinals have plenty of depth at safety.

His spot on the roster is secured but is he guaranteed a starting job?

With three other safeties on the roster outside of Budda Baker with starting experience, I say it is currently Jalen Thompson’s job to lose. He is only 22 years old and can be a long-term starter for the Cardinals if he can stay healthy.

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

#22 Deionte Thompson

The Cardinals’ 2019 fifth-round pick out of Alabama drew four starts in 2020 for the injured Jalen Thompson and Chris Banjo in Weeks 4-7. Deionte Thompson (6’1’’ 195lbs) trained with former NFL safety Ryan Clark last year at his DB Precision retreat in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and bulked up in preparation for the season.

He made a career-high of nine tackles against the Panthers in Week 4 but missed three tackles against the Cowboys a couple games later. After Jalen and Banjo returned, Deionte saw the bulk of his snaps on special teams the rest of the season and was placed on the COVID list in Week 12.

Deionte Thompson came into the NFL with concerns surrounding his “degenerative” knee, missed tackles, and slender frame that created a huge tumble in his draft stock. The 24-year-old safety seemingly corrected his size concerns to handle the rigor of the NFL but tackling remains a weakness and was still the No. 4 safety on the roster last year.

Has he surpassed Banjo on the depth chart?

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#36 Shawn Williams

The addition of Shawn Williams (6’0’’ 212lbs) came as no surprise. Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Vance Joseph was Williams’ defensive back coach (2014-15) with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cardinals love to add players that their coaches are familiar with.

Williams was relegated to special team duties in 2020 after the Bengals signed Von Bell to a three-year deal but still excelled. He made five special team tackles and was considered one of the best players on teams in Cincinnati. He took his demotion professionally and with class as expected by a team captain.

He had 114 tackles in 2019 and 110 tackles in 2018. Williams is only two seasons removed from a five interception season. Shawn Williams’ special team prowess along with his durability and extensive experience with 61 career starts makes him a valuable asset to the Cardinals.

I would not be surprised to see the 30-year-old have plenty of playing time on the defense in the upcoming season.

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

#31 Chris Banjo

After the Cardinals signed Shawn Williams, I thought that meant the end of Banjo (5’10’’ 207lbs) in the desert but that did not turn out to be the case. He re-signed with the team soon after the addition of Williams on a one-year veteran minimum deal.

Banjo has been one of the Cardinals’ top special teams players over the last two seasons. He filled in admirably for Jalen Thompson through the first few games of the season before suffering a hamstring injury in Week 3 against the Detroit Lions. Banjo had two interceptions negated by penalties by his teammates last year.

He finished the 2020 season with 39 tackles and many times looked like the second-best safety on the team behind Budda Baker.

Not sure what role Banjo will have if he makes the final roster but he has certainly gained the trust of the Cardinals’ coaching staff. Just like Williams, Banjo will be playing on a minimum deal, excels on special teams, and has starting experience in Vance Joseph’s defense.

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

#28 Charles Washington

Washington (5-10 192lbs) was the Cardinals’ top-graded special teams player (90) by Pro Football Focus with six tackles in 253 special team snaps. He saw some playing time on the defense last year against the Panthers in Week 4 and, in my opinion, looked like the Cardinals’ best defensive player that game.

Having not received defensive snaps since his rookie year in 2017 with the Lions, Washington had a near interception and did not look lost in his 16 coverage snaps in Carolina.

The 28-year-old has primarily been a special teams player in the NFL but he does his job well. He probably sits fifth on the depth chart but safeties in a backup role will need to impress on special teams. Washington has which is why the Cardinals continue to bring him back.

If Washington does not survive the final cuts and the 16-man practice squad rules remain from last year, I would expect the Cardinals stash him there.

NFL: JUN 02 Cardinals OTA Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

#38 James Wiggins

“I know Jeff Rodgers, our (special) teams coach, thought that the safety from Cincinnati was one of the better special teams core players in this draft,” GM Steve Keim said.

Steve Keim touched on the versatility of Wiggins (5’11’’ 205lbs), who can play both free and strong. He believes Wiggins can also be a starting safety in the NFL. Just based on how he performed in 2018 when he had 54 tackles and four interceptions, I would have said the same thing.

He tested well at his Pro Day running a 4.42 40-yard dash, had 22 bench press reps, and a 38-inch vertical jump. Let’s add the fact that he tore his ACL in 2019 makes those testing members even more amazing.

Is his potential maxed out at the age of 24?

I don’t think so. If Jeff Rodgers believes Wiggins is one of the best special teamers in the draft, that bodes well for his chances at making the team assuming he impresses during the preseason. He is only a seventh-round selection so let’s temper the high expectations a little bit but he is a player to be excited about.

Overall...

Difficult decisions await Steve Keim and the coaches once the trim down to the 53-man roster arrives but it is safe to assume the Cardinals would attempt bring whoever gets released back onto their practice squad.

Budda Baker, Jalen Thompson, Deionte Thompson, Shawn Williams, Chris Banjo, Charles Washington, and James Wiggins make a very impressive group of safeties. Unfortunately it will be difficult to keep all seven on their final roster.

Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson, and special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers have plenty of talent to work with.

The Cardinals have a nice blend of youth and experience in the defensive backfield and it will be interesting to see how these roster battles play out in the end.