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Without Antonio Cromartie, Cardinals have options at corner

TEMPE, Ariz. – It was a move that was expected.

If anyone paid any attention to Antonio Cromartie the month after the Arizona Cardinals’ season ended in the wild-card round, it was clear he wanted to go back to the New York Jets. He got his wish Thursday, agreeing to a four-year deal with New York and reuniting him with Todd Bowles, the former Cardinals defensive coordinator who’s now the Jets head coach, and fellow corner Darrelle Revis.

The loss of Cromartie leaves a void on the Cardinals’ depth chart at right cornerback. And the Cardinals have a few options to replace him.

One is promoting Justin Bethel to a starter. He’s spent the last three years learning how to play cornerback. After the Pro Bowl, Bethel said he didn’t play corner in college, so the last few years have been spent learning the fundamentals of the position.

“I’m getting the hang of it,” he said. “I feel like I’m getting to the point where I can be a great asset to the defense.”

But there’s risk with sending Bethel out wide, mainly because he’s inexperienced, having played 103 defensive snaps in three seasons, with 93 of them coming last year. He was targeted just six times and allowed three catches for 24 yards. Being thrown into the fire will be the only way Bethel can get experience, but using him as a press-man corner could be a defensive liability.

Last offseason, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said Bethel could be Arizona’s “best” corner on a team that included Patrick Peterson, but yet Arians and Bowles kept Bethel mostly on the bench, using him only as a substitute for injured players.

Another option for Arizona would be to move Jerraud Powers back outside to corner, where he played in 2013, and use Tyrann Mathieu as the slot corner, which also was his role in 2013. In this scenario, Bethel could be used as a fourth cornerback.

Powers had a solid 2013, allowing just three touchdowns in 122 targets (2.5 percent). But the key here is Mathieu, who’s coming off a season spent getting over a knee injury. In 2013 he was a versatile defensive back, spending most of his time at free safety, strong safety and slot corner. He played 229 snaps at left slot corner and 258 at the right slot corner. Last season, Powers spent 590 of his 708 snaps at slot corner. With Powers out wide and Mathieu in the slot, either Deone Bucannon can move back to his natural safety position or he could continue at the hybrid nickel linebacker-safety spot while Tony Jefferson becomes the other safety next to Rashad Johnson.

There are other options as well, such as drafting an outside corner, keeping Powers in the slot, using Mathieu as the fourth corner and Bethel as the fifth. Or, perhaps, using Bethel as the fourth corner and keeping Mathieu as a safety and Bucannon as the linebacker-safety.

After the news of Cromartie leaving broke, Bethel expressed his desire to take over Cromartie’s spot.

Johnson took to Twitter to put his support behind Powers.

The identity of Arizona’s next outside cornerback might not be decided for a couple months, but the Cardinals have options while figuring it out.