It sounds strange to say Patrick Peterson could have a breakthrough season this year. After all, the spectacular Arizona Cardinals cornerback returned four punts for touchdowns, one a 99-yard game winner, and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie kick returner last season.
But he knows that his biggest value to the Cardinals will be as a shutdown cornerback, and he learned a year ago that there probably is no tougher task in the NFL than trying to defend the best receivers in the game when pretty much all the rules are tilted toward the offense.
Peterson made great strides as the season went on and he's vowing to keep on improving as he goes against wide receiver extraordinaire Larry Fitzgerald in practice after practice.
Those punt returns were stunning, but Peterson knows how valuable he is supposed to be at his every down position on defense.
''I worked extremely hard throughout the OTAs, throughout minicamps, with Larry, one of the best guys in the business,'' Peterson said on Friday. ''I definitely think this year I will definitely showcase more skill at the corner position. That's why these guys brought me in, to shut down receivers and go out there and make interceptions and put our offense in great field position.''
He said there is ''no doubt'' that cornerback is the toughest position in the game.
''You have to be an extremely gifted athlete to play out there on the island play in and play out,'' Peterson said, ''because we're running backwards, the receiver is running forward, we don't' know what the hell they're doing. It's just a competitive, tough position all around.''
Which is the challenge that makes it fun for this supremely confident athlete, the fifth pick overall out of LSU in the 2011 draft. Last season, Peterson would change sides of the field to make sure he was up against the opponent's top receiver.
''I love that type of pressure,'' he said. ''I'm a competitor. I want to be the best. If I want to be the best I have to go up against the best.''
Peterson said defensive backs coach Louie Cioffi ''told me that once they first drafted me. He said `We want you to come in here. I'm going to put you on the No. 1 receiver. We want you to go out there and shut him down.' Point, period. That's my job.''
And adjusting to the tremendous speed of the NFL did take some time.
''This is 10 times different from college,'' Peterson said. ''In college we have a couple of simple concepts, but in the league you want to go in fire zones. Everything is fair game.''
Like a closer in baseball, cornerbacks need a short memory because they inevitably give up big plays.
''You've got to have amnesia, especially in the back end,'' Peterson said. ''We're the last line of defense. Like coach (defensive coordinator Ray) Horton says, the D-line and the linebackers can mess up or goof up an assignment and no one would ever know. But as a defensive back, we goof up, everybody is pointing the finger at us.''
Peterson had two interceptions, 13 passes defended, one sack and 64 tackles, 59 solo, last season. He gave up more than a few completions but seemed to get his timing down better as the team won seven of its last nine games, largely on the strength of its defense.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt loves the way Peterson welcomes the challenge of defending the NFL's best. But he has room for improvement.
''The biggest thing for him is understanding the defense and playing technique,'' Whisenhunt said. ''When you transition from LSU and the style of defense you play in college, which a lot of times is field and boundary generated. When you're talking about the NFL, it's a little bit different because the ball's more in the middle of the field and you have to be smarter in your alignments, how you play your technique. Some of those things you can only get through reps.''
Those reps are even more valuable, the coach said, when he's going against Fitzgerald, one of the game's best receivers.
''Patrick is a guy that wants to work and wants to be great,'' Whisenhunt said. ''You see him after practice interacting with the fans and signing autographs. That's what you want so I'm very excited to see him continue to grow in this league.''
Just 22 years old, Peterson already is among the most popular Arizona players. With a winning smile and outgoing personality, he probably has signed more autographs and posed for more photos than anyone else in the first week of training camp.
''I'm definitely in a privileged spot,'' he said. ''For these guys to come out here and watch us each and every day, there's no doubt in my mind I should show them a little bit of appreciation just for being a Cardinal and a Patrick Peterson fan.''