The Arizona Cardinals 2009 rookie class has some tremendously large shoes to fill considering that the previous class produced two starters, one of which led the team in interceptions and the second which broke the franchise mark for touchdowns by a rookie, and several serviceable backups. Two things have slowed the progression of the '09 class: injuries and a roster that was already stocked with talent. An early bye week doesn't give us much to evaluate but here's what we've seen so far.
Disclaimer: These guys are obviously young and are only three games into their NFL careers so take this for what it is, a look at only the past couple of months. We're not arguing who should have been drafted or saying any of these guys are garbage. We'll update these guys later on in the season and see how they're progressing.
Beanie Wells: Some have already labeled Beanie as the "most disappointing rookie at any position" but quite frankly nothing could be further from the truth. It's fair to say that Beanie hasn't produced eye-popping numbers like some predicted but he hasn't been terrible or disappointing by any stretch of the imagination. To be fair through training camp and three games, Beanie has two negative marks and one positive marks. The first negative mark is obvious, the ankle injury that held him out of training camp and part of the preseason. Not only did that hold him back from working with the offense and mounting any kind of serious push for the starting tail back job but more importantly it prevented him from learning the playbook and working against NFL-level competition. The second negative is probably just as obvious as two fumbles in one game will have a tendency to raise some eye brows. We've covered the fumble-itis issue quite a bit so we won't beat a dead horse. With the negative-nancy talk over and done with lets move on to the silver lining: his production. While Beanie hasn't received many carries through three games, it's interesting to note that he currently is tied with LeSean McCoy for the best yards per carry average among rookie running backs (4.4 ypc). Fellow first round backs Knowshon Moreno (4.0 ypc) and Donald Brown (3.4 ypc) both have more yards and carries but neither have posted a better yards per carry average than Wells. While many so-called-experts pointed to Beanie's lack of carries last week, as Cardinals fans we're accustomed to seeing this offense abandon the running game once a game starts to get away from them and like it or not, that's the team's philosophy at this point. The best news for Beanie at this point is that based on pure running ability, he's out performed Tim Hightower. Hightower is a more rounded back but Wells has proven to be more decisive and explosive. Grade: C+
What's to Like: When Beanie has the ball in his hands (and holds onto it), he's the most productive RB on the roster.
- What he needs to Improve: Obviously he needs to hold onto the ball and he'll need to improve his pass protection and pass catching ability before he really starts to cut into Hightower's playing time.
Cody Brown: Wrist injury ended his season before it every really got started. Grade: Incomplete
Rashad Johnson: Despite being a third round pick Johnson came in with quite a bit of hype and expectations and I think many of us (my self included) probably expected too much from him this early in the season. He was touted as being very 'NFL-ready' despite not having elite athleticism but so far he's just looked like a rookie who is still pretty raw. Through three weeks he hasn't made a very big impact on any game despite playing quite a bit on passing downs, especially considering that Matt Ware has missed the past two weeks. Given his position that could easily be seen as both a positive and negative statement so for now we'll just say that it's somewhere in between. Johnson hasn't been visibly beaten on any big plays but at the same time he's yet to break up a pass or make any plays that would validate the 'future starter' label that many of us slapped on him shortly after the draft. RJ should continue to play in most passing situations and as the season progresses he'll get better acclimated to the speed of the NFL game and more adept at reading opposing offenses. Grade: B-
What's to Like: Johnson is learning the game and hasn't been noticeably beaten and tackling has been solid in both pass and run support.
What he needs to Improve: Overall just about everything in his game can be improved and that should come with experience. His anticipation and reaction time are the biggest things that he needs to develop at this point.
Greg Toler: Sadly Toler's biggest contribution on the young season has been running into a punt that Antrel Rolle didn't catch. With the way the league records stats, it means that officially he's returned one punt for zero yards and fumbled the ball, but we all know what really happened. Outside of that he's been active for two games (inactive for season opener) most of his playing time has come on special teams and unless injuries strike the cornerback position that probably won't change. We knew that Toler was very raw and anything he contributes this season is probably just a bonus. Grade: C
What's to Like: Considering the jump in talent that Toler is making, it's at least encouraging to see him contribute in any aspect. His athleticism should keep him on field with the special teams.
What he needs to Improve: Basically every aspect of his game on the defensive side of the ball needs work but we probably won't see that improvement this season unless the secondary gets ravaged with injuries.
Herman Johnson: Through no fault of his own Johnson has been inactive for every game so far. We didn't think much of the Jeremy Bridges signing at the time but his ability to play both guard and tackle has pushed Johnson and Brandon Keith to the inactive list on game days. It'll probably take at least a couple of injuries for Johnson to receive any playing time this season. Grade: Incomplete
Will Davis: The primary beneficiary from Brown's injury was Davis and thus far he's been active every game and contributed two tackles, one on special teams and one with the regular defense. His most significant playing time came against the Jags and it's fairly reasonable to expect him to get some playing time in any game in which the Cards get a 'safe' lead. Davis has the athleticism to play the OLB position and he'll get better with time. Considering the Cardinals lack of depth at OLB it's realistic to think that he'll get some extended playing time sometime this season. Grade: B+
What's to Like: Considering what we saw during the preseason, I was pretty impressed with Davis when he played against the Jags. He didn't look near as lost as he did in the preseason. His athleticism is impressive and he'll get better as the year progresses.
What he needs to Improve: His weakness is still understanding the entire defense and covering the pass. It normally takes at least one season for young OLB's to grasp a 3-4 defense so that's nothing new.
LaRod Stephens-Howling: The Hyphen has contributed just as much, if not more, than any rookie on the roster. He's only carried the ball once (for two yards) but he's caught three balls for 22 yards and returned every kickoff so far. His 21.2 yard average on kick returns isn't great but it's fifth among rookies with at least five returns and seven of his nine returns have gone for at least 20 yards. LSH is proving that his promising preseason wasn't a fluke and as long as he continues to display good ball security, he should hold onto the primary kick returner job. The next hurdle for LSH will be challenging Jason Wright for the #3 RB job and I wouldn't be surprised to see that happening later in the season. Grade: B+
What's to Like: LSH is productive when he touches the ball, especially in space. He has some escape-ability and seems to quickly gaining the confidence of the coaching staff.
- What he need to Improve: His biggest weakness as this point is pass protection, which also happens to be Wright's strength. If LSH can close that gap he should start pushing Wright for playing time.
Reggie Walker is the only other rookie on the roster but he's yet to record a tackle and he's only been active for one game. I guess we could list him as incomplete. While it's probably safe to say that this year's rookie class won't get out of the shadow of the 2008 class anytime soon there are certainly some promising players in this group. We'll update these guys later in the season but for now, what's your opinion of the rooks through three games? Who's the most surprising and disappointing?