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ESPN’s Barnwell: Cardinals QB Rosen might deserve a mulligan

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and quarterback Josh Rosen (3) talk it over prior to an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The numbers rarely look good for a rookie quarterback.

It’s hard to project players by looking at their first season on the job, which is why the Arizona Cardinals have hardly felt the need to criticize or nitpick Josh Rosen, the No. 10 selection in the 2018 draft. They know he has enough pressure on him.

And he knows on-paper improvement will come as he gains experience and comfort.

“I definitely need to throw to our team a lot more, in all facets,” Rosen said with a no-duh tone this week.

He and the team know it’s not an ideal situation around him.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell agrees and in his rookie quarterback report card said he hasn’t seen any signs of bad habits from Rosen through 10 starts.

If anyone deserves a mulligan out of this group, it’s Rosen. The 21-year-old UCLA product is already on his second offensive coordinator after Mike McCoy was fired and replaced by Byron Leftwich. Perhaps more importantly, Arizona has somehow lost each of its five starting offensive linemen, which is close to unprecedented for an NFL offensive line.

The most promising part of Rosen’s development remains his footwork, which is remarkably consistent. He just looks comfortable in the pocket, even as pressure whizzes by him. Rosen isn’t going to be much of a scrambler, but he already has superb instincts for when and where to step up in the pocket and create a throwing lane. If anything, he might be too focused downfield and take more coverage sacks than the Cardinals would want.

Arizona’s coaching staff is well aware of Rosen’s best qualities.

Some of the quarterback’s most eye-popping throws have come under pressure, when his head is up as he steps up into a collapsing pocket. His best series have come in crunch time.

“Josh, as he and I spoke the other day — just got to do a much better job of keeping his eyes down that field. Don’t worry about that rush,” Cardinals coach Steve Wilks said on Monday. “Because when he does, he’s pretty effective.

“I’m really trying to pull out the positives. When you look at a young guy like this and the situations he’s been put in, I think he’s trending forward. The two-minute — quarterbacks in this league have to be able to operate in two-minute, and he’s shown the ability to do that.”

Barnwell tends to focus more on the context around Rosen, including the offensive line that last week started three rookies and a receiving group that hasn’t gotten open.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, 34.4 percent of Rosen’s throws have gone to open receivers, which is last among players with at least 200 passing attempts. Barnwell also points to the numbers surrounding running back David Johnson’s use in the passing game, which haven’t changed much since Leftwich took over for McCoy.

It’s fair to wonder whether the Cardinals could do more to create easy throws for Rosen. He hasn’t seen any sort of jump under Leftwich’s tenure. David Johnson’s usage rate in the passing game hasn’t changed much; after averaging 19.1 routes and 4.3 targets per game before McCoy’s firing, Johnson is averaging 18.3 routes and 5.2 targets per game under Leftwich.

What’s the fix?

Rosen needs to find a better rhythm to improve his accuracy, and Barnwell puts that on the coaching staff. Adding weaponry would go a long way as well.

The Cardinals have to throw more on early downs and give Rosen easier completions. If the current staff isn’t creative enough to create safe throws for its young quarterback, he’ll need a new offensive coordinator. If Fitzgerald retires this offseason, the Cardinals would suddenly have the worst set of receivers in the league.

All in all, the numbers for Rosen this year don’t mean much.

Look at the NFC West rivals in Los Angeles, for example. Rosen’s statistics through 10 games (55.4%, 6.08 YPA, 10 TDs, 12 INTs) look similar to Jared Goff’s in seven games of his rookie year with the Rams (54.6%, 5.31 YPA, 5 TDs, 7 INTs).

A head coaching change was the biggest reason behind the uptick in Goff’s production in the two years since his rookie season (63%, 8.28 YPA and 55 TDs, 18 INTs).

And that leads to wondering how the Cardinals approach the offseason when it comes to coaching staff decisions that could alter Rosen’s career trajectory.

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