* = starter; + = roster spot; ~ = suspended
* Sam Shields
* Morgan Burnett
* Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix
* Micah Hyde
~ Demetri Goodson
+ Chris Banjo
* Damarious Randall
+ Quinten Rollins
+ LaDarius Gunter
+ Kendall Brice
+ Marwin Evans
By using the nickel package as the base, we end up with five starters in this group.
Shields is the unequivocal starter at one cornerback spot. His concussion issues last year after the Dallas game cemented his importance to this unit; the defense suffered without him before stepping up to another level when he finally returned. His ability to match up against big receivers makes him invaluable on a team with an assortment of shorter cover men; without him, this team has to rely a lot more on luck and scheme to handle guys such as Larry Fitzgerald or Michael Floyd on the outside.
Opposite Shields, Randall should be able to take the next step after having a pretty good rookie season in that spot. He has plenty of ups and downs in his first year, but with the full season at corner under his belt after spending college playing safety, he can become an even stronger contributor going forward.
Burnett has been constantly overlooked over the years, but he’s one of the better-rated safeties the past few years and a good run defender (an area this team seems to constantly need to solidify). His fellow safety Clinton-Dix is the player we should be watching most though; Clinton-Dix already has shown himself to be really strong in coverage, and he could be poised to rise to the top tiers at his position.
To handle the slot starter position, the team will turn to Hyde. He’s worked well at that spot, and he should continue to be a fine option against both slot receivers and tight ends. Should injuries hit the outside guys or the safeties, he has also proven able to step into any of those roles as well.
Past the starters, the depth here is ridiculous.
Banjo has proven himself to be a strong contributor on special teams, to the point he became a captain for his work there. Keeping a strong leader like him is essential to a team that relies so heavily on young players to build their roster.
With more time actually playing football, Rollins should be even more of an exciting option; more games like the one he produced against the Rams are easily foreseeable. As he becomes more accustomed to the game (remember, he had only one season of football in college before he was drafted last year). Along with him, Gunter should continue taking positive steps forward. Once Goodson returns from his suspension, the roster spot for someone like him could be more tenuous, but his talent and experience with the team should keep Gunter safe at least for now. He could possibly still be challenged by an ascending Hawkins, but his positives may be enough to outlast any final push Hawkins manages.
To round things out, a couple talented safeties in Brice and Evans look to have the kind of playmaking talent teams covet. Each has made an impact in the preseason and could be reasonably expected to hold their own should they be called upon during the year. They’ll both be even more essential should the hamstring injury sustained by Banjo remain an issue.