Cardinals show confidence in rookies, youth under Steve Wilks
TEMPE, Ariz. — Former Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians believed rookies remain rookies until Thanksgiving.
The rationale? Because between the start of camp and then, they’d played a 12-game college season.
Arians’ successor, first-year coach Steve Wilks, apparently doesn’t buy that logic.
He’s putting more faith in rookies beyond Arizona’s first three 2018 NFL Draft picks, and it showed as the team cut its roster down to 53 players over Labor Day weekend. Nine of those remaining players are rookies, and at least four of them can say they are in first- or second-string roles heading into the season opener Sunday against the Washington Redskins.
“Experience is good when it’s proven, when guys continue to progress and perform,” Wilks said Monday, two days after most notably cutting veteran receivers Brice Butler and Greg Little to keep a youthful group around 15-year pro Larry Fitzgerald.
“I told you guys this from day one: I don’t mind playing rookies. You know, that’s my mindset. I’m going to play the guys that deserve the right to play and most importantly, we kept the guys I felt deserved the right to be here.”
According to Philly Voice, Arizona remains one of the older teams in the NFL, ranking 25th with an average age of 26.5 years. But that’s younger than the 53-man roster looked to begin 2017, when the Cardinals had the oldest squad in the NFL averaging 27.3 years old.
True to their form of establishing a defense-first, ground-game-centric identity under Wilks, Arizona prioritized the offensive and defensive lines when finalizing a regular season-sized roster. Wilks and the team felt compelled to carry 10 players on each of the lines due to injury concerns and the prioritizing of physical football.
With that, the Cardinals kept only five receivers, including undrafted rookie Trent Sherfield.
He joins a group that includes fourth-year pro J.J. Nelson, second-round pick and rookie Christian Kirk, and second-year pro Chad Williams, who by Arians’ standards might still be considered a rookie after only appearing in six games last year.
Wilks believes that group — a four-some that not including Fitzgerald averages 23 years old — is ready.
“I think Larry’s done a great job coaching those guys hard, getting them to play harder each and every day,” safety Tre Boston said of the young receiving corps.
The confidence in the young Cardinals extends beyond the receivers.
Rookie Mason Cole will start at center, while first-round pick Josh Rosen and fourth-round pick Chase Edmonds will be backups at their respective positions, quarterback and running back.
Arizona also retained seventh-round pick Korey Cunningham and undrafted players in linebacker Dennis Gardeck, safety/linebacker Zeke Turner and cornerback Deatrick Nichols at the cut deadline.
“Those guys just worked their butts off,” Wilks said.
Wilks mum on rehab progress for TE Gresham, DE Golden
Pulling tight end Jermaine Gresham (Achilles) and defensive end Markus Golden (ACL) off the physically unable to perform list over the weekend indicated the pair could be ready to play as soon as Week 1.
Wilks didn’t rule that out Monday but maintained the team will be cautious with the two players coming off serious injuries.
“It’s still ongoing. You look at practice today, and Jermaine looked well. He was running around, catching the ball,” Wilks said. “And again, don’t want to throw him out there too soon — him or Markus — to have a setback, but we’re moving in the right direction. We’re close.”
Bolstering the lines
Fitting to the team’s offseason, the weekend of moves was spent adding backend depth to both the offensive and defensive lines.
The Cardinals waived defensive end Vontarrius Dora, plus offensive line backups Evan Boehm and Will Holden. The team made successful waiver claims on offensive linemen Blaine Clausell and Jeremy Vujnovich, as well as defensive tackle Garrison Smith.
Arizona also signed free agent end Zach Moore.
“Every time I stood in front of you guys, you guys kept talking about the (offensive line) backups so I took your advice and we looked to improve there,” Wilks quipped. “We brought in some guys that we felt had some playing experience, some guys who had started in some games.”
Vujnovich brings the most experience of the waiver-wire additions, having started 16 games for the Indianapolis Colts last year.
Getting that number, finally
Boston, a free agent signee, spent training camp wearing the No. 38 jersey. But his preference for his old No. 33 was clear when he pasted a piece of tape with “TBD” written on it over his locker.
When he arrived for practice Monday, Cardinals staffers had graciously changed his jersey and plaque to 33 after the number opened up with the cutting of rookie cornerback and sixth-round pick Chris Campbell two days prior.
“I did feel a little bit different today, I don’t know what it was,” Boston said. “I wore (33) every year since I’ve been in the league. Not everybody can make number thirty-three look good, but Tre-Tre makes it look good.”
“It was pretty gratifying but at the same token, nothing’s solidified yet and nothing’s guaranteed in this league, ever. You haven’t arrived. I don’t think I’ll ever get that moment of arrival.” — Undrafted rookie linebacker Dennis Gardeck on making the 53-man roster.