Elijah Higgins among under-the-radar Cardinals to watch as regular season wraps

Dec 19, 2023, 2:05 PM

TEMPE — The NFL regular season is in its final stages with three weeks left on the schedule for the Arizona Cardinals and the rest of the league.

Unlike the 14 teams that will head to the playoffs once the regular season is caput, the buck stops for the 3-11 Cardinals in the first week of January.

For players flying under the radar more than most and looking to make one last impression on the new regime this season, these next handful of games could go a long way.

And whom are those players you might add? Let’s dive in:

Elijah Higgins, TE

The wide-receiver-turned-tight-end has slowly seen his snaps and production tick up with the departure of Zach Ertz and injuries within the tight ends room.

Since Week 8 — the first game Ertz missed in 2023 — Higgins sits fifth on the team in receiving yards with 93 on seven catches. Before that, he had one catch for zero yards and one game to show for in 2023.

The latest example of Higgins stepping in was this past week when veteran and eight-game starter Geoff Swaim went down with a calf issue against the San Francisco 49ers.

Seeing a career high in offensive snaps (25), Higgins ended up finishing with the second most catches (four) and yards (44) on the team while scoring the only receiving touchdown of the afternoon for Arizona in the 45-29 defeat.

And with the unknown surrounding Swaim’s injury — he was carted off before being seen moving very gingerly in a walking boot — there’s a good chance Higgins’ upped involvement isn’t a one-off.

“He’s done a really nice job of leaning on those guys in that room,” offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said Tuesday. “(Tight ends coach) Ben Steele has done a nice job of preparing him and teaching him the technique and helping him make that transition (from wide receiver to tight end).

“He shows up in the passing game. You see those receiver skills, the ball skills, the run after the catch, just the feel he has in the passing game. But I think his effort and his fundamentals in the run game have really made strides over the course of the year.”

We all know Trey McBride is TE1 moving forward. He’s more than earned that moniker. Beyond him, though, it looks pretty wide open.

If Higgins can continue to show off his hands while also proving himself as blocker, he should at least make a case for an added look as the TE2.

“He adds a lot of value to our room, because he’s a former receiver, a Stanford guy that’s smart and also a guy that’s willing to work. He’s out here every practice working on his footwork and blocking. … He’s explosive, he’s got a little (former NFL tight end) Jordan Reed in him.”

Michael Carter, RB

Carter has flashed his ability in Arizona’s run game despite the limited touches coming his way since he joined the team midseason off waivers.

In his three games as a Cardinal, Carter has run the rock 11 times for 71 yards. He’s also caught all seven of his targets for 25 yards.

Conner is the unquestioned leader and starter in the room. He’s going to get the bulk of the work more times than not.

That’s not to say there isn’t a meaningful role for Carter to reach for.

As we’ve seen throughout the season, Petzing likes to have multiple running backs at his disposal.

Conner has been the bell cow, but Emari Demercado has served well in pass protection and on third down. Carter meanwhile is giving the team a little bit of both worlds as he utilizes his shiftiness and versatility in the offense.

“Mike’s personality is infectious and that trickles over into the fact that he’s a really intelligent and really good football player,” Cardinals running backs coach Autry Denson said last Friday. “He’s picked up everything.”

Michael Wilson, WR

If this was a midway look at the regular season, Wilson wouldn’t be on this list given what he was bringing to the offense.

But since Week 8, Wilson has fallen off from a production and availability standpoint.

After racking up 25 catches for 401 yards and two touchdowns through the first eight weeks, Wilson has since been held to just three receptions for 34 yards.

A big reason for his low numbers is the fact he has hardly seen the field the past six weeks due to a lingering shoulder issue. Before his active status on Sunday, Wilson had missed four of the past five games.

The injury has not only stunted Wilson’s time on the field, it also hasn’t done him any favors in building better chemistry with quarterback Kyler Murray.

Rondale Moore, WR

Moore? Under the radar?

Much like Wilson, some of you might be thinking twice about his addition to the list based on what’s been seen out of the wide receiver since he arrived in Arizona in 2021.

His production as a receiver this season hasn’t quite been there like it has in previous years, though.

Through 14 games played, Moore is third among Arizona pass catchers in receptions (31), a distant fourth in yards (265) and tied with three others for fourth in touchdowns (one).

You could say he’s made more of an impact in the run game as a change-of-pace option, carrying the ball 24 times for 158 yards and a score.

But even his work on the ground has been hit and miss, with Moore seeing no more than four carries in a game and has combined for three attempts the past five games.

Seeing some “pew, pew, pew” from Moore these final three games could go a long way in defining what his role could look like in 2024.

Honorable mentions

Kei’Trel Clark, CB

Clark found himself back in the starting lineup in Weeks 12 and 13, but once again he was relegated to special teams work in Sunday’s loss to the 49ers.

It’s been a weird season for Clark, who has bounced around from being a starter to a defensive afterthought in 2023.

Seeing some more consistency from a playing standpoint could say a lot about where Arizona feels Clark is at.

Zaven Collins, OLB

Collins doesn’t typically fit the under-the-radar-Cardinal mold, but given his production of late, he finds himself as an honorable mention.

Moved from MIKE backer to outside linebacker in the hopes of generating a better pass rush, Collins has been held sack-less the past seven games.

That’s a far fall from his 3.5 sacks in his first seven starts.

Pass rushing goes far beyond sack totals, but even his pressures have taken a hit, having just one to show for the past four weeks combined, per Pro Football Focus.

Despite the drought, defensive coordinator Nick Rallis remains confident in Collins’ ability.

“I thought he rushed really well last week, honestly. Actually, his rushes inside,” Rallis said Tuesday. “We ask him to do a lot of things as far as aligning on the edge, inside, dropping into coverage.

“The versatility gives us major benefit as a defense. And I think he’s getting comfortable as he continues to get those reps inside and outside.”

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