Arizona Cardinals rookie trends: Garrett Williams up, Kei’Trel Clark down
Oct 25, 2023, 10:29 AM
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
TEMPE — Arizona Cardinals cornerback Garrett Williams had one heck of an NFL debut on Sunday, highlighted by a red zone interception.
For the 2023 third-rounder, stepping back onto the field was a long time coming after battling back from a torn ACL suffered nearly a year ago.
Aside from the pick, he also came away two tackles, a pass defensed and some valuable on-the-job knowledge from veteran safety Budda Baker.
Not a bad Game 1 for Williams by any means.
The cornerback is undoubtedly trending upward, but what about the rest of Arizona’s first-year pros currently rostered?
A look at how things are trending for each of the Cardinals’ rookies seven games into 2023:
Arizona Cardinals rookies – The Steady Eddies
Paris Johnson Jr.
Johnson has lived up to his first-round price tag.
The offensive lineman has fit in the trenches, playing every offensive snap up to this point and producing at least 1-2 clips per game of him moving someone out of the frame of the TV broadcast.
Johnson has allowed just two sacks and four QB hits during that span, per Pro Football Focus.
Like every rookie, he has his off-moments — as seen last week — but Johnson has lived up to the expectations in the short time he’s been a Cardinal.
Wilson’s targets can be volatile, but you want to know what’s not? His usage in the offense and his ability to impact games as a blocker.
Starting all but one game, the third-rounder of out of Stanford has seen no less than 67% of available offensive snaps since Week 3.
And when the ball does come his way, he’s usually making a play despite a lot of contested looks. Through seven games, Wilson’s caught 21 of 27 targets for 343 yards and two touchdowns.
He trails only Hollywood Brown in receiving yards (383) and touchdowns (three) and is third in catches behind the veteran wideout (32) and tight end Zach Ertz (27).
Wilson is 19th in the NFL in catch percentage (76.9%) despite being tied for 10th in the NFL in longest targeted air yard average (13.4), according to NextGenStats.
Rookies moving in the right direction
It’s been a roller coaster few weeks for undrafted rookie.
After filling in well in place of the injured James Conner in Week 5, Demercado was relegated to passing downs and saw just a few touches in Week 6. Still, he ended up with more snaps than his counterparts.
Then came last week, when Demercado was again entrusted to lead the running backs room, seeing career highs in attempts (13) and rushing yards (58) in the 20-10 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
As for Keaontay Ingram and Damien Williams, two running backs that out-touched Demercado two weeks prior, they were held to one rush and one catch combined.
Regardless of how Arizona deploys Demercado from week to week, whether that’s strictly in pass protection or running the rock, he’ll continue to have a steady role in the offense even when Conner returns to action.
Injuries along the defensive line have provided Stills more of an opportunity to play after he was a healthy scratch in Week 1.
And the sixth-rounder is making the most of it.
In six appearances (two starts) in 2023, Stills has a sack, 10 tackles and a QB hit.
And while Jonathan Ledbetter was back in the starting lineup these past two weeks after missing a pair of games with a finger injury, Stills is still seeing at least 43% of the defensive snaps.
Starling Thomas V
After being inactive for the first four weeks of the season, Thomas got his first taste of live NFL action as a special teamer in Week 5 behind seven snaps.
In Week 6, Cardinals defensive coordinator Nick Rallis put more on the undrafted rookie’s plate in the form of 25 defensive snaps and 11 more on special teams.
The trend continued in Week 7, with Thomas not only seeing a career-high in defensive snaps (60), but also earning the start.
Some of that was due to personnel as Antonio Hamilton was ruled out with a groin injury prior to the meeting. That’s not to say Arizona didn’t have another option to consider in Kei’Trel Clark, who did not play a single snap on Sunday despite being healthy and logging five starts in 2023.
It’s clear Thomas showed enough in his limited outings to warrant a heavier workload defensively even if the coaching staff said the move was more matchup-based.
The jury’s still out
Ojulari continues to see his defensive snaps tick up after missing nearly all of training camp with a knee issue.
He’s had some flashes but hasn’t seen more than 33% of defensive snaps in a given game and is up to just six tackles on the season.
It also doesn’t help that the Cardinals have a deep outside linebackers room with guys they covet.
More time on task should bump those numbers for a player the Cardinals were ecstatic about drafting in the second round.
Pappoe is a speed demon that has been used specifically on special teams in six games played.
Even with injuries to Josh Woods and Krys Barnes this season, the fifth-rounder is still without a defensive rep.
Playing nearly 100% of the defensive snaps, Clark looked to have a cemented spot in the starting lineup through four weeks of the season.
These past three games have not followed that thinking, however.
Clark has seen no more than 40% of defensive reps in each of the past three games. Even in his Week 6 start against the Los Angeles Rams, the sixth-rounder was on the field 56% of the time defensively.
Week 7 was even worse, with Clark failing to log a defensive or special teams snap in the loss.
Has he hit that rookie wall or is it really a matchup-based decision?
The training camp standout has just one pass on the season off a fake punt in Week 7.
The fifth-rounder has been stuck behind Joshua Dobbs on the depth chart and will be moving even further down the QB pecking order when Kyler Murray fully returns by no later than Week 10.
Blake Whiteheart and Elijah Higgins
Higgins has a catch and one game of experience while Whiteheart has none.
But with tight end Zach Ertz sidelined for at least the next four games with a knee injury that put him on injured reserve, the two undrafted rookies have at least an outside chance to make their presence felt offensively.
Higgins played six offensive snaps with a target in Week 7, making his debut after Ertz’s injury.