Jamell Fleming will play a lot for the Arizona Cardinals in his rookie season, whether the former Oklahoma cornerback starts or not.
Having made a strong impression at voluntary workouts and a three-day minicamp, Fleming will be one of four cornerbacks competing for the starting job opposite Patrick Peterson, the fifth player selected overall a year ago.
“I’m just trying to learn the playbook, including nickel (packages) and be ready to contribute on special teams,” Fleming said. “I feel I have the potential to be a starting corner in the NFL at some point. I just have to take it step by step.”
The first step arrives Tuesday, when the Cardinals report for training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Fleming will compete for the starting left cornerback vacancy against William Gay, a five-year veteran who started the past two years with the Steelers; Greg Toler, who was contending for the job last year before suffering a torn ACL; and A.J. Jefferson, who lost the job after seven games last year.
Regardless who emerges as the starter, the Cardinals frequently play four cornerbacks when facing multiple-receiver sets.
“(Fleming) has been a productive player in a big-time program,” Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt was quoted following minicamp. “That thing that really jumped off film was his quickness. Watching him doing inside in the nickel, his change of direction is really outstanding.”
Playing inside in Arizona’s nickel and dime packages most likely will be Fleming’s role his rookie season. Fleming (5-foot-11, 203 pounds) has good size to play in the middle.
Selected in the third round, the 80th overall selection, Fleming believes his two years as a starter at OU in the pass-happy Big 12 will help him adapt.
“Just trying to learn the playbook as fast you can is probably the biggest adjustment,” Fleming said. “They expect you to learn everything.”
Arizona didn’t have a second-round pick. The Cardinals’ most pressing need was the offensive line, but they selected Fleming with their second selection, stating he was a second-round talent that slipped to the third round.
“When you talk about a guy who can play inside or outside, those guys have to be physical,” Whisenhunt said. “The bigger they are, the more difficult it makes it for the offense. I’m interested to see how that translates. His physical skill set is a good match for that.”
Fleming, who finished fifth on the team in tackles his junior and senior seasons, is physical. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 23 times at the NFL Combine. That’s why Fleming is surprised when some have questioned his tackling skills.
“It’s funny because I’ve had games where I led the team in tackles,” Fleming said. “Sometimes I’d have a game where I had 11 tackles and two interceptions. In the NFL, you have to be able to do both. But the real big thing is your coverage against receivers.”
That’s Fleming’s primary strength. He was second nationally in passes defended his junior season and also recorded five interceptions. He was named All-Big 12 last season.
Fleming said he’s excited for the start of camp after getting a taste of the NFL during offseason workouts. He’s already been matched a few times in practice against All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
“I think that will help me a lot,” Fleming said. “He runs the best routes in the league. That helps me every day. If I can stop him, that gives me confidence I can stop anybody. Him being so good is a plus for me. The best part is he’s on my team.”
The Arlington, Texas, product said it’s a bigger adjustment from college to the NFL than high school to college, but he’s ready for the challenge.
Highlighting his career at OU was being named the Defensive MVP in OU’s bowl wins the past two seasons — a win over Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl two years ago and a win last season over Iowa in the Insight Bowl.
“That gives me a little confidence, knowing that I can do it,” Fleming said. “But this is a different level. This is a job. In college everybody is pretty good. At this level everybody is really good. If I just get smart on the field, it will come naturally.”