Originally Published: August 3, 2018 9:55 p.m.
GLENDALE — The Arizona Cardinals have one of the best wide receivers to play the game but, beyond Larry Fitzgerald, the position is a major question mark for the team under first-year coach Steve Wilks.
The names of those competing for playing time and/or just a spot on the 53-man roster are hardly that familiar: Brice Butler, J.J. Nelson, Chad Williams, Greg Little, Christian Kirk and Trent Sherfield, among others.
Underrated is a good word to describe the group, the coach said.
“I think that’s exactly the point, just because (of) the perception that there’s not any big-time there that we don’t have good players,” Wilks said after the Cardinals sweated through an outdoor practice Friday.
The receivers on the roster, he said, are better than outsiders might think.
Fitzgerald had another banner season a year ago, finishing second in the league and tying a franchise record with 109 receptions for 1,156 yards as he climbed to No. 3 on the NFL lists for career receptions and yards receiving. At 34, he was the oldest player in league history to catch at least 100 passes in a season.
But nobody else caught more than 33 for the 2017 Cardinals and no other wide receiver more than 31. Add the departure of the Browns — Jaron and John (no relation) — via free agency and there wasn’t a lot left at the position when Wilks and new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy took over.
Nelson and Williams are holdovers, Butler signed as a free agent, Little hasn’t played in an NFL game since 2015 and Kirk was Arizona’s second-round draft pick out of Texas A&M. Sherfield is an undrafted rookie from Vanderbilt who has shown promise early in camp.
Like his coach, Butler believes the group is far better than people realize.
“There’s not a lot of household names, you can say that,” he said, “but we’ve got big talent in the room.”
Butler caught 15 passes for a career-best 317 yards and three touchdowns for the Dallas Cowboys last season and sees the current situation as a big opportunity.
“I’ve just got to do what I’ve got to do, man,” he said. “It’s training camp. It’s about doing the grind day in and day out.”
Nelson might be the biggest big-play threat in the group. Exceedingly fast, his 509 yards receiving (on 29 catches) were second on the team a year ago.
“He can take the top off, as you guys have seen the last couple of days,” Wilks said.
But Nelson’s career has been plagued by inconsistency.
Williams has been working with the first team often as he enters his second year following a difficult rookie season.
The former third-round pick out of Grambling State also has big-time speed but played in only six games as a rookie, catching three passes for 31 yards.
“I feel like I’m way more advanced than I was last year, way smarter,” Williams said. “It’s an opportunity for me to really get it going.”
The dynamic Kirk figures prominently in the Cardinals’ plans, both as a receiver and kick returner.
“The one thing that I love about him is his motor,” Wilks said. “Of course he’s a good player. He’s smart and all that stuff.
That’s the reason why we drafted him, but a lot of times you really don’t know what you get until they actually get here and they start going through their routine. This guy goes full speed on every play, every play.”
Little, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 220 pounds, “has done some great things” in a comeback attempt that Wilks said might be the player’s last chance after bouncing from team to team following a standout rookie season in 2011, when he caught 61 passes for 709 yards for Cincinnati.
“Once you separate Larry, everything else is wide open,” Wilks said. “Everybody’s fighting for that position. Those guys are really competing hard. ... It’s going to be interesting to see how things shape out once preseason hits.”