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Development mode: 6 young Cardinals to watch down the stretch

The season is as good as over for the Arizona Cardinals, but there are still games left to be played. Which players should Cardinals fans be keeping an eye on as the season concludes?

Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Chargers
DT Robert Nkemdiche had a huge game on Sunday. Can he keep the momentum going these next five games... and into 2019?
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

It’s been a few years, but here we are again talking about offseason plans and draft picks with several weeks left in the regular season. That’s the reality of being 2-9 with a rookie QB playing behind a makeshift offensive line under a first-year head coach with a defense that hasn’t come close to playing up to its talent level.

So, yeah, it’s been a long season.

But it isn’t over yet—there are still five games to go. We’ll be underdogs in them all as we stare 2-14 square in the face. While there’s nothing really left to play for, these last five games are still important for the players on the field, especially the younger guys who need as many reps as they can get.

Let’s take a look at six such players—all under 25, all of whom play key roles… and all of whom have questions that need answering down the stretch. So this list doesn’t include guys like C Mason Cole (entrenched as the starter), WR Chad Williams (*edit—injured and ineffective), Markus Golden (over 25), Deone Bucannon (not playing much lately), or Budda Baker (already an above-average starter). Ditto practice squad guys/street free agents like Jeremy Vujnovich, Leonard Johnson, and David Amerson.

We’ll start with the most obvious name on the list:

QB Josh Rosen

Question: “Is Rosen a franchise QB?”

How He Can Answer It: For varying reasons (lack of preseason snaps, bad coaching, limited talent around him, poor O-line play), Rosen has failed to impress thus far in his rookie season, completing only 56% of his passes and putting up a 6.2 YPA, 10:11 TD:INT ratio, and 30.1 QBR. Things seemed to be turning around under new OC Byron Leftwich for a bit, but Rosen has only thrown 39 passes combined in the past two games. It’s hard to evaluate your rookie QB if he’s barely throwing the ball.

Now, the numbers above aren’t atypical of rookie QBs—they’re similar to what Jared Goff and Mitchell Trubisky put up in their first seasons. (Although they’re well behind what Baker Mayfield is doing in Cleveland this year.) To give the Cardinals confidence going into next season, Rosen needs to improve on those numbers in these last five games. If he can get his overall completion percentage closer to 60%, his YPA above 6.5, and his TD:INT ratio into positive territory, we can consider his rookie season somewhat of a success. Oh—and a 300-yard game or two would be nice. But he’s not going to get there on 20 passes a game. Hopefully the coaching staff wises up. If they don’t, Rosen’s status as a potential franchise QB might rightly be questioned.

WR Christian Kirk

Question: “Can Kirk develop into a #1 WR?”

How He Can Answer It: Kirk’s development is inherently tied to Rosen’s. That said, Kirk has had a stronger rookie year than Rosen so far. He’s second among rookie WRs with 536 yards (behind Carolina’s D.J. Moore), a total that leads the Cardinals. Kirk is the only rookie who can make that claim. He’s also second on the team in targets, receptions, and TDs to Larry Fitzgerald. He’s been a steady presence on offense—since Week 2, he has garnered between 4 and 8 targets in each game, and he’s caught at least 3 of them in all but one game. He also has four games of 75+ yards receiving

So he’s been steady—but not spectacular. He’s only caught more than 4 passes twice, has yet to have a 100-yard receiving day, and only has 3 TDs. For the team to feel more confident about his prospects for next year, seeing him average 5 receptions a game from here on out, with at least another 2 TDs and a 100-yard day thrown in there, would certainly help. Given that the Cardinals should be trailing against several teams without an elite pass defense, he just might get there. If not, WR might become our biggest need if Fitz retires.

T Korey Cunningham

Question: “Can Cunningham play well enough to be an option at RT next season?”

How He Can Answer It: I don’t think anyone actually expects to go into 2019 with Cunningham as the starter at RT. But having him in the mix, whether as the starter or top backup, would be a great result for a 7th-round draft pick. He’s actually acquitted himself well in two starts at LT, and he’s given up only two pressures and no sacks on the season thus far.

He now gets five games to prove himself at the slightly less-difficult RT position. But he’ll still have his work cut out for him, as the Redbirds face two top-10 pass rushes (GB, DET), as well as one that might even be more dangerous just outside the top 10 (LAR, at #14). Not to mention two tough road games (ATL, SEA). Anything short of an Andre Smith-level embarrassment would be considered a success, but keeping the sacks and penalties at an absolute minimum would be even better. But if this experiment is a disaster, Cunningham might not even be on the roster next season.

DT Robert Nkemdiche

Question: “Can Nkemdiche produce consistently and become a reliable starter?”

How He Can Answer It: After Sunday’s 7-tackle, 2.5-sack, backfield-wrecking performance, the question might have been whether Nkemdiche can become a stud. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves—this is still a player with just 4.5 career sacks, all this season. He’s also missed four games and had a hard time even getting on the field his first two seasons.

But Sunday’s game was a tantalizing peek at what he could become if he can stay healthy and shut down concerns about his effort/motor. If we could get 2-3 games a year like Sunday’s and steady production in between, that would fill a huge need—and would probably earn Nkemdiche an extension beyond next season. To get an idea of whether that’s possible, Nkemdiche would need to play in each of the last five games, rack up 3-4 more sacks, and continue to stuff runs. Is Diche up to the task? If he’s not, he might be looking for a new home in 2020.

LB Haason Reddick

Question: “Will Reddick be a starter next season?”

How He Can Answer It: This depends mostly on who is coaching the defense and what scheme they will be running, but Reddick will have a say as well. He’s has actually played a ton recently—he’s among the snap count leaders on defense since Week 5—but he hasn’t really produced, with just 43 tackles and 2 sacks. There have been flashes (remember his 8-tackle game with a sack and a forced fumble against the 49ers?), but he’s mostly been anonymous.

However, with Josh Bynes now on IR and Deone Bucannon‘s role shrinking by the week, the Redbirds are incredibly thin at LB. If there was ever a time for Reddick to step up and make a statement, it’s now. And we’ll need him to, with a strong slate of opposing offenses on the docket. If he can rack up 30 or so tackles, add another couple sacks, and cause a turnover or two in these last five games, he should be in the mix at LB next season. If not, it’ll be hard to call Reddick anything but a bust.

K Zane Gonzalez

Question: “Will Gonzalez be our kicker next season?”

How He Can Answer It: Thankfully, the Phil Dawson era is over. Many people thought this would be the start of the Matt McCrane era, but the team has decided to go with former ASU kicker Zane Gonzalez. (Go Devils!) Gonzalez had an uneven rookie season in Cleveland last year (15/20 FGs), but a disastrous start in 2018 (2/5 FGs) led to him getting cut after Week 2. Not exactly a confidence-inspiring resume, especially for a team that just suffered through several years of Phil Dawson.

But Gonzalez was an excellent college kicker, making 83% of his kicks, and he was unconscious in his senior year in 2016, making 23/25 FGs, including an incredible 7/9 from beyond 50 yards. Maybe the Cardinals think that a return to Arizona will help him return to that form. Who knows. What we do know is that it’ll be hard for him to be worse than Dawson for these last five games. If he can make 80% of his kicks and show any kind of ability from over 50 yards, he should at least go into training camp with a chance at the job. If he can’t, it’ll be back to the drawing board for GM Steve Keim at the kicker position.

Final Thoughts

This team may have been hard to watch so far in 2018, but these six players will be worth watching in December as the Cardinals look to establish at least a little positive momentum going into 2019. And if these guys all play well, the team will likely do just that.

If not? It’s going to be a long offseason, too.

What do you hope to see out of these players over the last few games, Redbirds fans? Are there any other players you’ll be keeping a close eye on? Let’s discuss what to watch for as this miserable season concludes in the comments.