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Cardinals’ under-25 players have much to prove, ESPN says

Arizona Cardinals first round draft pick Haason Reddick (43) runs drills during an NFL football minicamp, Tuesday, June 6, 2017, at the Cardinals' training facility in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Just a year ago, the Arizona Cardinals’ development of their young players appeared healthy as ever. ESPN ranked the team’s 25-and-under crop of players eighth in the NFL.

How things change in a year.

This year, Scott Kacsmar, special to ESPN, ranks Arizona 31st in the league in terms of its talent of players under 25 years old.

Some of that has to do with talented players turning 25 and out of consideration for this ranking. David Johnson, Tyrann Mathieu and J.J. Nelson are among those who are no longer included in the Cardinals’ under-25 group. Deone Bucannon turns 25 just before the season, and Kacsmar doesn’t include him, either.

Otherwise, the Cardinals are banking on young first-round potential, but not much production. 2015 pick D.J. Humphries started his career in the doghouse as a healthy scratch, but he ranked 10th among left tackles in snaps per blown block last year. Robert Nkemdiche will hope for a similar boost in his sophomore season. The rookie had just one tackle in 2016, failing to silence critics after some off-field issues led to him sliding in the draft.

This year the defense added linebacker Haason Reddick and versatile safety Budda Baker in the first two rounds, but neither is a shoe-in to start in Week 1. Baker could see the field a lot early given Tyrann Mathieu’s injury history.

After one preseason game, the top of the under-25 group seems promising. Humphries, 23, is dealing with a minor hamstring issue at present, but he pushed veteran Jared Veldheer out of the starting left tackle spot thanks to his play late last season.

Nkemdiche’s consistency at 22 years old might be the only thing stopping him from being an above-average defensive tackle. Baker, 21, has earned himself comparisons to Mathieu, and Reddick, 22, appears to be filling in for Bucannon just fine.

Until they play in a regular season game, however, all of the aforementioned players’ production comes with asterisks.

After that, there are a few young Cardinals with a lot to prove.

Kacsmar suggest 24-year-old cornerback Brandon Williams “should do a better job as a starter opposite Patrick Peterson than Marcus Cooper did last year,” which doesn’t vibe with the ups and downs he’s had playing behind Justin Bethel and even little-known Ronald Zamort before the latter tore his ACL.

Evan Boehm, 23, could help improve the Cardinals’ outlook regarding their youngsters if he shows well as the expected starting right guard, while tight end Troy Niklas, 24, could prove useful only if he remains healthy in his fourth NFL season.

Add in promising rookies like running back and return man T.J. Logan, who will miss a few months due to wrist surgery, receiver Chad Williams or offensive lineman Dorian Johnson, and the cupboard isn’t barren. There’s just need for development.

This ranking system is bound to ebb and flow across years, and all it takes is the emergence of a few players to make that second-to-last ranking look a little better heading into 2018.

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