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Arizona Cardinals roster even more young and inexperienced

Howard Balzer Avatar
December 28, 2023
Arizona Cardinals

It’s obvious to anyone that pays attention to Arizona Cardinals football just how many young and inexperienced players are on the field each week.

That was clear when the season began and has become even more glaring as roster attrition has hit throughout the season.

There are currently 53 players on the roster, which includes Jonathan Ledbetter who will be placed on reserve/injured because of a season-ending knee injury suffered Sunday against the Bears.

Ledbetter is one of five defensive linemen that played in the first game of the season and only one, Kevin Strong, will definitely play this weekend against the Eagles. It’s possible that Leki Fotu, who was designated for return from reserve/injured Wednesday and began practicing, could be activated. If not, Ben Stille is a candidate to be elevated from the practice squad.

Fotu started in Week 1 along with Ledbetter and L.J. Collier, who was lost for the season in that game because of a biceps injury. Aside from those four, Carlos Watkins played in the season opener, but he was lost for the season after a Week 2 biceps injury.

Since Week 1, those five players have played only 34 of a possible 70 games. Rookie Dante Stills, who was inactive to open the season, has played all 14 games since the season opener and started seven.

Added to the roster during the season have been Roy Lopez, Naquan Jones and Phil Hoskins, who was signed from the practice squad this week and played three games earlier in the season. Stille, Kendal Vickers and Jacob Slade are also on the practice squad.

The group is a try-hard bunch with minimum-salary contracts that lacks a difference-maker and are essentially rotation players.

One league personnel executive told PHNX, “They don’t even have one close (to a game-changer). All of their guys play hard and deserve to be in the league. Just not all on one team.”

Ten players in addition to Stills have played in at least one game: Strong 13/10 starts, Ledbetter 12/12, Lopez 12/3, Fotu 10/9, Stille (4/0), Hoskins 3/0, Watkins 2/1, Jones 2/0, Eric Banks (no longer with the team) 2/0, Collier 1/1.

With Ledbetter out, coach Jonathan Gannon said, “We will set up a plan for that with the five guys up and then see who’s playing inside and outside. When I say outside; three technique or five, who’s playing nose and shade and those things, and try to make sure we have that balanced out as much as we can.

“Certain guys are going to play a little bit more than others. That’s how it always is, and then see how the game goes. A lot of that too is predicated on how they decide to play us and how many guys are in.”

Dec 3, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Arizona Cardinals cornerback Kei’Trel Clark (L) and defensive end Kevin Strong (92) and defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter (93) and linebacker Jesse Luketa (R) pose after defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers at Acrisure Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Asked how difficult it is to deal with injuries on the line, Gannon said, “Like any position, you’ve got to get guys ready to play and certain guys take on bigger roles. They’ve got to play at different spots, but they’re battling and hanging in. We definitely got nicked on the D-line this year, but that’s like everybody in the NFL though.

“I’m proud of the guys; how they’re battling in different spots they’re playing and some of the production.”

Acknowledging the weekly challenge of preparing to play good offenses, Gannon said, “It’s hard when guys’ roles are changing. You have to find ways to play winning football on that side of the defense with different guys in. Now with saying that, I feel good about everybody that we have in here, and that’s why the practice squad is so huge in depth.

“Starting (from) Week 1, we look a lot different right now with one on through the eighth guy. It’s our job to get them ready to play, get them in the right spots, playing with the right technique and motor, and then it’s their job to maximize their five buckets as we talk about and play winning football for us.”

The line, of course, isn’t the only place where there have been moving pieces.

Overall, the Cardinals have had 75 players participate in games and against the Bears, rookie linebacker Owen Pappoe became the 52nd to start a game.

The team’s 13 rookies on the current roster have played 127 games and started 54, while practice-squad cornerback Divaad Wilson, another rookie, has played two with one start:

Tackle Paris Johnson Jr. 15/15, linebacker BJ Ojulari 15/0, Stills 14/7, Pappoe 14/1, cornerback Kei’Trel Clark 12/7, running back Emari Demercado 12/2, wide receiver Michael Wilson 11/10, cornerback Star Thomas V 10/5, tight end Elijah Higgins 9/1, cornerback Garrett Williams 8/5, quarterback Clayton Tune 5/1, tight end Blake Whiteheart 2/0, tight end Travis Vokolek 0/0.

The addition of Hoskins to the roster increases to 33 the number of players on the roster that have two or fewer years of NFL experience.

One bright spot in a long season without tasting victory very often are the snaps accrued by those young players.

“(It’s) probably the biggest learning tool you have,” Gannon said. “There’s a lot of them, but the biggest ones you have are game reps and to be in the game to go against a different opponent when it matters and when it counts under the lights. Those are huge reps, so I think from that standpoint for some of those younger guys you’re talking about, those are huge reps for them.

“They’re a big-time learning experiences for them, and they should then improve from those reps, so the growth that you want to see from guys playing should happen because now they’re getting experience. From that standpoint, it is a positive.”

The most important result will be how much growth there will be and improvement shown in 2024 as the biggest jump usually for players is from their rookie season to Year 2.

Questionable decisions

There were two by Gannon that raised eyebrows in last Sunday’s loss to the Bears.

The first was the choice to go for a 2-point conversion when the Cardinals cut Chicago’s lead to 24-16 with 6:37 to play in the third quarter. A pass was incomplete leaving it an 8-point deficit.

The second came with 3:03 to play in the game with the score still 24-16, the Cardinals at their own 27-yard line and facing fourth-and-6. All three timeouts were available along with the 2-minute warning. Yet, the decision was made to go for the first down and the play was a downfield pass to wide receiver Greg Dortch. The Bears followed that with a field goal to essentially seal the victory with 1:02 on the clock.

Asked about those choices Tuesday, Gannon began with the 2-point try.

He said,The first process is, do you want to define what you need at the end of the game? I’m pretty convicted most games, because it can change a little bit, but you want to define what you need at the end of the game because it puts different emphasis on how you play offense and defense when you either have the ball or don’t have the ball. I liked that decision there.”

That answer also raised eyebrows. Whatever the 2-point result was, another touchdown was still necessary so it shouldn’t affect “how you play offense and defense.” Kicking the extra point would have provided the opportunity to either tie the game or go for the win if there was another touchdown. However, the miss left them needing a touchdown and 2-point conversion just to tie.

The explanation for the fourth-down try was even stranger. Gannon said, “I felt like we were down to our last possession there. I thought that was kind of the last possession we were going to get there, so there’s always those decisions you’ve got to make.”

Dec 24, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Greg Dortch (83) dives for a touchdown in the second half against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

That choice appears to say loud and clear that Gannon didn’t have much confidence in his defense stopping the Bears.

When asked if he was doing those things to be aggressive, he said, “I wouldn’t say aggressive. It’s how we decide to set up the game; those decisions that go into winning the game and what we think is best. You can’t look at the outcome. You’ve got to look at how you’re coming into that decision and how does that impact the rest of the game, which I feel really good about our decision-making there.

Of course, the body of work this season shows a team that has attempted a lot of fourth-down plays and 2-point conversions that haven’t been successful.

The Cardinals are 11-for-30 on fourth down and that 36.7 percentage is last in the NFL. Eight NFL teams are 60 percent or better and the Seahawks (6-for-16, 37.5 percent) are the only other team below 40 percent.

In addition, their 30 tries are tied for the fourth-most in the league with Cleveland (56.7 percent made) and Indianapolis (50 percent). Three teams have attempted more: the Giants with 34 (50 percent), Detroit 35 (48.6 percent) and Carolina 40 (45 percent).

League-wide, the other 31 teams have made 51.7 percent of 673 attempts.

On 2-pointers, the Cardinals are 3-for-12 (25 percent), which is tied with the Bears (1-for-4) for the second-worst percentage in the NFL.

Five teams have none, but the most attempts are two by the Patriots. Kansas City and Miami have each missed one, while the 49ers haven’t attempted any. The team with the next most attempts after the Cardinals is Cleveland with nine (made six).

The other 31 NFL teams are 62-for-106 (58.5 percent) on 2-point plays.

While Gannon conceded “we need to do a better job on got-to-have- it and 2-point plays,” he added, “I’m not going to make the incorrect decision because I don’t think we’re going to create a play. I want to make sure that we’re going through our process and making the correct decision for the game.”

So, coach, how does a team get better on those plays?

“You’ve got to research, you’ve got to teach it, you’ve got to coach it, you’ve got to practice it and you’ve got to have guys make plays,” he said. “I feel good with what’s on the sheet there, what he (offensive coordinator Drew Petzing) is calling, and we just got to do a good job executing.”

He’s right. However, to “have guys make plays” and “do a good job executing” consistently in those critical situations, all 11 on the field have to be good enough to be better than the opposing 11. It’s not much different than all the other plays in a game. There are successes, but not enough times to turn competitive games victories.

That is the story of the 2023 Cardinals, which will make the next round of roster building in the offseason fascinating to watch.

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD

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