Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was chatting about his team on the sideline during a training camp practice when a wide receiver caught a pass in stride and pulled away from the secondary.
Except it wasn't really a wide receiver with the ball in his hands. It was cornerback Patrick Peterson, and the sight of him running with the football was compelling enough to redirect Keim in midsentence.
"He is so natural," Keim said. "Watch him running routes, particularly stops and digs. You watch him drop his weight at 219 and accelerate out of the break, that's not what cornerbacks do. He can come out here and just run a route, and you're just like, 'He looks like Percy Harvin running a route. How does he do that?'"
Keim has seen much more of Peterson at receiver in two-plus weeks of subsequent practices. He is now calling Peterson the closest thing he's seen to Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders in ability.
"From an ability standpoint, I've never seen anything like him," Keim told Robert Klemko. "He's the closest thing in the league to a Bo Jackson, a Deion Sanders. I've seen him stand on the field flat-footed and throw the ball 65-70 yards. He goes out to practice as a wideout, and runs a 10- and 15-yard out as well as anyone on our team. His value to our team is really unparalleled."
Peterson returned four punts for touchdowns as a rookie and earned Pro Bowl honors in that capacity. He earned Pro Bowl honors as a cornerback in his second season, picking off seven passes. Could Peterson, with only four receptions for 10 yards to this point in his career, become that type of contributor on offense? It's doubtful any cornerback could play enough snaps on offense while remaining an every-down player on defense, but if any current corner could do it, Peterson would be the one.
Jackson played football and baseball, but he didn't play two positions in the NFL. Sanders dominated at cornerback and caught 36 passes for the Dallas Cowboys in 1996. He had 188 career receptions, three for touchdowns. Peterson is much sturdier than Sanders, outweighing him by about 20 pounds while showing similar ability with the ball in his hands. Peterson would have a better chance at holding up physically. Arizona goes only three deep at receiver, so there could be opportunities for Peterson without forcing the situation.
I came away from Cardinals camp thinking Peterson would get enough snaps on offense to make his presence on offense more than a gimmick. Keim's latest comments reinforce that idea. At face value, the "unparalleled" comment means the Cardinals value Peterson more than they value any other player on the team, including receiver Larry Fitzgerald. That does not mean the Cardinals plan to pay Peterson the way they are paying Fitzgerald, necessarily. Fitzgerald leveraged an over-the-top rookie deal into two extremely player-friendly veteran contracts, to the point that the salary-cap consequences are burdensome. But when the GM is comparing a young player to Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders from an ability standpoint while calling that player's value to the team unparalleled, I'd imagine the agent is taking notes. Peterson is signed through 2014 and is earning $4.6 million per year as the fifth player chosen in the 2011 draft class.
Praise for Peterson is nothing new in Arizona. Here is what Fitzgerald said of Peterson last offseason:
"From a physical standpoint, he has no weaknesses at all. Most guys you go against, bigger guys, I can manipulate them on the field or physically. Patrick is just so different. He has the game-changing speed. He can run with anybody in the league. His ball skills are like playing with another receiver. He can tackle you in the run game. He knows what’s going on, is a student of the game.
"You want to draft a guy to carry the torch for your team, Patrick Peterson epitomizes that. Just his maturity. He’s 22 years old [now 23]. He just got married. His outlook on life, the way he carries himself, the way he performs, it’s like a 30-year-old. He just gets it. To get it at that young of age, that is a scary combination when you couple that with elite talent."
Also last offseason, then-coach Ken Whisenhunt called Peterson "the same creature" as Fitzgerald in terms of talent, community involvement and the will to be great. He pointed to a rough 2011 defeat against Cincinnati when Peterson had hurt his Achilles tendon. Logic said the Cardinals needed to be careful. The defeat had eliminated them from playoff contention. One game remained in the season. Why risk it?
"He came out and played the next week against Seattle," Whisenhunt said. "It was that important to him. And that was very Larry-esque."