Unlike college freshmen joining the team for the first time, NFL rookies — particularly those selected in the first few rounds of the draft — are expected to contribute immediately and prove their place on a team’s 53-man roster. Of course, it doesn’t always work out like that, as every year, players either exceed or fail to meet the expectations commensurate with the round and pick they were draft.
The Arizona Cardinals certainly aren’t exempt from this phenomenon, as a pair of rookies on their roster are experiencing life on opposing ends of the NFL rookie learning curve.
Arizona Cardinals beat writer Darren Urban of azcardinals.com joined the Red Sea Report with Craig Grialou and Bertrand Berry on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Tuesday to discuss the respective growth and ongoing maturity of wide receiver J.J. Nelson and offensive tackle D.J. Humphries.
According to Urban, the development of Nelson — the fifth-round pick out of UAB — has been one of the more pleasant surprises leading up to opening kickoff this coming Sunday.
“When [Nelson] came into the offseason, I think a lot of people wondered what he would be able to bring,” Urban said. “To be honest, when you go out there in the shorts and T-shirts of the summer, you expect the defensive backs and the wide receivers to be the ones that catch your eye, because they’re really the only ones that can do anything near what they normally do and he didn’t really catch your eye in the offseason, so I wasn’t expecting a whole lot. I was wondering, ‘Hey, maybe he can be a return guy and that would be his only chance to make the team.’
“Then he came into training camp and something happened.”
That something evidently came in the form of taking a dose of advice from veterans like Carson Palmer, who was direct in addressing Nelson, who in turn took the professional tips to heart.
“It’s been documented a few times with Carson Palmer talking about, ‘Hey, I pulled him aside saying you need to take this step forward.’ He obviously listened, which is always a good sign. He looked great in training camp; he looks like this deep threat to go with John Brown that can really stretch the defense and I think they can get something out of him receiver wise.
“Obviously they have a ton of receivers, but I think he can give them a threat that people are going to have to think about every week and that’s a good thing for this team.”
On the opposing end of the spectrum is Humphries, the Cardinals’ first-round pick out of Florida in this year’s draft. Evaluated as a prospect who provided a tantalizing empty canvas, if not a player lacking desirable polish, Humphries’ struggles thus far as a rookie have been well noted. After garnering the nickname “Knee Deep” by head coach Bruce Arians, Urban admits that plenty of work needs to be done before Arians and company can confidently count on their prized pick.
“I don’t think it caught [the coaches] completely by surprise,” Urban said of Humphries inconsistent offseason. “Obviously, you don’t want to have to go through the maturity thing that they’ve talked about, or having to realize how hard you’ve got to work to do what they’re doing, but I do think that when he came in, I think there was a fairly good idea that this was going to be a learning year and we better not count on him. It’s great that you can draft him now and you can teach him the game, but he was never really expected to start. I know there was a lot of talk that he would battle Bobby Massie, but I don’t think anybody really ever truly thought he would take it from Bobby Massie. I think they kind of went into it thinking he’s going to have to learn this year.
“Now, with Massie being suspended, that changes that part of it a little bit more where you’re kind of wishing he had been a little more [ready], but when you start looking at the first round picks — high first round picks — of offensive tackles the last few years — (Luke) Joeckel and (Eric) Fisher and (Jake) Matthews and Lane Johnson — and none of them played well as rookies. None of them. And they were higher picks than D.J. Humphries … D.J. Humphries is certainly not the first first-round talent at tackle to struggle out of the gate and this team is just fortunate enough that they got some guys to plug in to weather that and give him — as you said — that redshirt year.”