Which players are we excited to see in Cardinals training camp?
Jul 26, 2023, 8:12 AM
(Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)
The Arizona Cardinals didn’t do anything especially blockbustery under their new regime this offseason.
It makes sense to cut down their salary books, take stock of which players fit Monti Ossenfort’s and Jonathan Gannon’s culture and prep to hit the 2024 NFL Draft hard. That’s where the reset will be.
That could make it a trying year for fans. But there will be little things we see in 2023 that we can get excited about.
As Cardinals players report Tuesday and with training camp shifting into gear Wednesday, what are we looking at? Let’s take it to Arizona Sports Cardinals reporter Tyler Drake for the lowdown.
Who can break out in Arizona Cardinals training camp?
Kevin Zimmerman, lead editor: Tyler, I am unsure how competitive this Arizona team will be in 2023. But I can always build hope by getting excited about young players or guys who are going to be fun to watch. Give me 3-5 names of dudes not named Greg Dortch who I haven’t seen much of but who could pop in camp and ultimately be easy to root for this coming year, regardless of wins and losses.
Tyler Drake, Cardinals reporter and co-host of the Cardinals Corner podcast: Wins may be few and far between this season for the Cardinals, but there are definitely some names to keep tabs on that could make an impact now and down the line.
Rookie wide receiver Michael Wilson has been talked about too much to count in this space, though I fully expect him to have Rondale-Moore-rookie-year vibes in training camp. Dude just seems to get it.
Defensively, look out for fifth-rounder Owen Pappoe and sixth-rounder Kei’Trel Clark.
If you look up “speed” in the dictionary, you’ll find Pappoe. He made a name for himself at Auburn before turning on the burners at the 2023 NFL Combine with a 4.39. Those in the NFL are already taking notice, too, as evident by his speed rating that topped the Madden 23 charts for inside linebackers. And given the team’s current depth at the position, there’s real potential he could climb his way up the depth chart this camp.
Then there’s Clark, who caught the eyes of his teammates throughout offseason workouts. He has the traits of a serious grinder that could be a solid addition to a cornerbacks room in need of some serious depth behind Marco Wilson and Antonio Hamilton Sr. if he can get the playbook down pat. Wilson raved about the fellow rookie’s work ethic and attention to detail — Clark had two pages of notes on the wideout from their offseason battles — and we’re not even to training camp yet.
I’ll give you two more in second-year pros Cameron Thomas and Trey McBride.
They seem poised for breakout seasons after taking a serious approach to the offseason. They are both noticeably bigger yet haven’t lost a step. In some instances, they even appear quicker. On top of that, they are both carrying around a lot more confidence. Their heads aren’t spinning so much and it’s clear to see. And with question marks surrounding Zach Ertz’s return to action from his torn ACL and Arizona’s pass-rushing as a whole, opportunity awaits the pair of 2022 draft picks.
Speaking of that suspect Arizona pass rush, Kevin, what do you think of Arizona’s decision to move Zaven Collins from inside to outside linebacker and what type of production do you envision him having in 2023?
Zimmerman: I’m curious how he projects on the edge. Collins looked more fluid than explosive as an athlete, and I’m curious if his skillset fits the position switch. That’s coming from someone who hasn’t been out at practices all summer long, mind you. Just because he’s a first-round pick, I would hope he cements himself as one of the top-three pass-rushers quite quickly in camp. Otherwise, we start wading into sunk-cost or wasted-development-years talk.
Still, you bring up a good point about the pass-rushing group. We’re going into a second season where we will see a pass-rusher-by-committee, which to me resembles the Arizona Diamondbacks’ current situation of closer-by-committee (not a good position to be in).
Right now, we have: Collins, Thomas, Myjai Sanders, BJ Ojulari, Dennis Gardeck, Victor Dimukeje and Jesse Luketa on the outside linebacker crew. Please guide me and break down that group into tiers based on your expertise. Because I think some of them need to separate and soon.
Drake: Currently, I think Collins and Thomas are the frontrunners when it comes to getting the starting nod. Arizona isn’t about to have one of their best defenders in Collins watch from the sidelines and Thomas’ transformation cannot be understated. He seems like a different player.
From there, we get into the should-make-some-noise tier taken up by Ojulari and Sanders. A 2023 second-rounder who just signed his contract on Monday, Ojulari has an uphill climb this training camp after missing most of Arizona’s offseason workouts due to an injury. But given his college resume — 16.5 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss in 31 career games — and his football character defensive coordinator Nick Rallis and Gannon have raved about, he could be a darkhorse at the position.
Sanders doesn’t appear to have taken that same type of jump as Thomas has but is coming off a three-sack effort in a limited showing last season as a rookie. He is very much in the mix to earn extended reps if not start.
Then we get to our trusted-veteran-backup tier held only by Gardeck. The team leader has caught lightning in a bottle before — see his seven-sack effort in 2020 — and is one of the best special teams options Arizona has at its disposal. Outside of someone going down, I think Gardeck will see most of his work as a special teamer.
Lastly, we get to the depth pieces in Dimukeje and Luketa, two players still in the thick of their NFL progression and haven’t gotten nearly enough playing time defensively.
Switching gears from rusher to passer, who do you envision taking the reins at quarterback to start the season and when will quarterback Kyler Murray make his return from a torn ACL? I have a feeling it’s going to be Colt McCoy, but I’m not ruling out rookie Clayton Tune starting at some point. He just gives the Cardinals a much more mobile option to work with. As for Murray, I was originally thinking a Week 8 return made a lot of sense. But after hearing his remarks on the recent episode of Cardinals Flight Plan and getting a peek into how he was mentally, he could very be back sooner than that.
Zimmerman: Let’s do what nobody should do — even licensed physicians — and play Twitter doctor for a second. Twitter Dr. Zimmerman says that you absolutely have nothing to gain by rushing back an ACL injury by the start of the season. Even a hyperspeed return from an ACL tear as a franchise quarterback who needs his legs to be dynamic should get no more than eight months combined to recover and rebuild his conditioning.
That puts Murray back in position just to practice at the very start at the season, September, if I’m being generous. Give him another month of work on the practice field by himself. Designate him to return and make sure he looks up to full speed, which could take up all of October. Now we’re at the 10-month mark with plenty of season left.
A Week 8 home game against the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 29 or a Week 10 hosting of the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 12 look safe, reasonable and leaving yourself enough time to find out what a post-injury Murray looks like.
Before then, I think McCoy starting is a safe bet to start Week 1 if he’s head-and-shoulders above the Blough’s and Driskel’s of the world. If it’s an 0-4 start or so and Tune has gone through enough game weeks where the rhythm sees him catching on, then I wouldn’t be against seeing what he’s got early on.
Getting back to camp: Give me a 4-5 player ranking of first- or second-year pros most likely to start in Week 1.
Drake: That list starts with Paris Johnson Jr., who can play either right tackle or left guard. I’ve said it and I’ll say it again, Johnson already carries himself like a pro and will be an impact player for years to come for this franchise.
Then I’ll turn my attention to Thomas even with the competition at OLB. He appears to have made a leap this offseason and it feels like a starting role is his to lose at this point.
With McBride, the Cardinals are going to want to run the ball and two tight-end sets are going to be a common occurrence. He would be higher on this list if it weren’t for the team’s latest free-agent signing of Geoff Swaim, a known blocking tight end who has a ton of experience. But with Ertz still on the mend, we could very well see a McBride-Swaim combo come Week 1.
Wilson comes in at No. 4, because while I think he will get a lot of run, I’m not so sure he will get the official start. With an emphasis on running the ball expected, I can see a lot of two-wide receiver sets. One of those spots will be taken by Hollywood Brown. The other is very much up for grabs between Wilson, Rondale Moore and Zach Pascal. That’s a lot of competition for a rookie, even if expectations are high.
I’ll leave you with a darkhorse for No. 5 in Pappoe. The inside linebackers room has seen a major shift with Collins and Isaiah Simmons moving to outside linebacker and safety, respectively, and newcomer Kyzir White taking over as starting MIKE backer. Why not really mix things up with a quick-twitch rookie looking to prove himself? Josh Woods and Krys Barnes present Pappoe’s biggest veteran competition, but if the young linebacker can prove he’s up to speed on the playbook, his speed on the field should translate to the pro level.