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Development in the desert: How are our developmental players progressing?

With the Cardinals officially eliminated from the playoffs, the final few games are all about player development. Let’s check in with a few players we’ve been tracking. How did they do in Week 14?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals
The arrow is pointing up for rookie WR Trent Sherfield after his strong play on Sunday.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday’s depressing loss to the Lions officially eliminated the Cardinals from playoff contention, removing any pretense that the final few games are about anything other than player development/evaluation. With that in mind, we’ve been tracking several young Cardinals players the past couple weeks. We’ll check in on those players once again this week, starting as always with the (hopeful) future face of the franchise.

QB Josh Rosen

Question: “Is Rosen a franchise QB?”

Week 14 Progress: Wilks and Leftwich actually let Rosen throw the ball on Sunday, and, on the surface, the numbers were solid—he had season highs in attempts (41) and completions (26), and had his second-highest completion percentage (63.4%) and yardage total (240). The completion percentage was especially encouraging given that he’s been below 58% in all but two of his previous games. But the numbers were basically empty calories, as he once again had a YPA below 6.0 and failed to throw a touchdown in leading the team to only 3 points at home. He also held onto the ball far too long all day, leading to several late throws, including the brutal pick-six to Darius Slay that was the game’s decisive score. So while he inched closer to the completion percentage goal of 60% we set for him, he’s no closer to hitting the 6.5 YPA and positive TD:INT ratio benchmarks.

What to Watch in Week 15: The offense under Rosen was almost unforgivably bad last week, but, fortunately, the Atlanta Falcons defense has been quite forgiving this season at #21 against the pass and #28 in scoring. If—wait, let’s be honest—when the Cardinals fall behind early, that should set the stage for Rosen to approach 40 attempts again. This might be Rosen’s last chance for a statement game in his rookie season, with the Rams and Seahawks left on the docket. Can he take advantage and finally hit 300 yards passing in a game? He’ll need to be much more decisive and efficient than he has been in order to do so.

Trending: Steady ↔

WRs Trent Sherfield, Jalen Tolliver, and Chad Williams

Question: “Can any of these WRs earn a roster spot for next season?”

Week 14 Progress: Preseason hero Trent Sherfield was one of the few bright spots on the field for the Cardinals against the Lions. He played almost every snap on offense (65/70), snagged 5 receptions (on 7 targets), and led the team with 77 yards receiving. Those 5 receptions also resulted in 4 first downs. Sherfield also passed the eye test, showing strong hands and looking every bit the part of an NFL-caliber receiver. His solid play was a promising development for a team in desperate need of WR help with Christian Kirk on the shelf. Further down the depth chart, Jalen Tolliver played only 12 snaps as the fourth WR behind Larry Fitzgerald, Sherfield, and J.J. Nelson, but he did catch 2 balls for 22 yards (and one first down), so there’s a little promise there as well. Meanwhile, Chad Williams hasn’t played since Week 8 due to a balky hamstring and likely will not play once again in Week 15. At this point, I’d be shocked if he made any kind of input down the stretch.

What to Watch in Week 15: If the Cardinals throw it 40 times again (a likely scenario), Sherfield would be in line for another solid outing. If he can keep putting up 5/50 lines (with a TD or two thrown in), he should get a long look as a depth WR (think a number 4 or 5) next season. Tolliver will probably only get scraps again, but if he keeps chipping in on the stat sheet, a camp invite should be in his future. Who knows if Williams will play again this season, and I don’t see how he figures into the team’s future plans, regardless of who is coach or GM, even with 2 years left on his contract.

Trending: Up ↑

T Korey Cunningham

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

Week 14 Progress: Other than playing all 70 snaps on offense at LT, Cunningham was absent from the stat sheet on Sunday—no penalties taken or sacks given up. That’s a good sign—and right in line with the goals we set for him—but the offensive line as a whole did not have a great game. The running game only averaged 2.9 YPC, and Rosen was sacked 3 times and hit 8 more. From what I saw, Cunningham himself looked… competent out there. Not bad for a 7th-round rookie, and not really much different than what we were getting from former a 1st-rounder (D.J. Humphries).

What to Watch in Week 15: Cunningham will face another hostile road crowd this week in Atlanta, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he’s hit with another false start or two. But the Falcons are #27 in sacks and #26 in rushing defense, so this could be a good showcase for him before he’s eaten alive by the Rams and the Seahawks in the final two games. It would be a resounding success for GM Steve Keim if Cunningham is in the mix at either tackle spot next season, or even just as a swing tackle.

Trending: Steady ↔

DT Robert Nkemdiche

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

Week 14 Progress: Nkemdiche only played 22 anonymous snaps (he did not appear on the stat sheet) against the Lions before tearing his ACL. He’s now, obviously, out for the rest of the season and very likely the beginning of 2019 as well. He almost certainly won’t be any kind of impact player next season as he recovers from surgery, and the Cardinals might very well choose to move on from him at that point, as there’s no way they’d pick up his 5th-year option. Diche has flashed at times in his first full season as a rotation player (remember the Chargers game?), but the former 1st-rounder will likely end his tenure with the Redbirds as an unequivocal bust.

What to Watch in Week 15: Not Diche, obviously. We’ll instead switch gears next week and focus on new Cardinals LG Colby Gossett, the former Vikings 6th-round rookie whom we signed off their practice squad last week. He actually played pretty well in his Cardinals debut against the Lions. Will he figure in picture at guard next season?

Trending: N/A (injury)

LB Haason Reddick

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

Week 14 Progress: Reddick didn’t have a great game against the Packers two weeks ago, but he answered the bell against the Lions, playing every snap and racking up 11 tackles (10 solo, 2 for a loss) and getting a hit on the QB. He looked assertive and fluid on the field (well, until the final, Zach Zenner-led drive), helping to hold the Lions to 3.9 YPC on the ground. He did give up several receptions out of the backfield to Theo Riddick, but they were all short gains (although one did go for a first down). I’d like to have seen him have his hand in a turnover, but it was still a good performance overall.

What to Watch in Week 15: Atlanta is dead last in the league in rushing attempts, but they do tend to throw to their RBs more than most teams, so Reddick should still see plenty of action. (Especially if the Cardinals are losing and the Falcons run more to grind down the clock.) Reddick is on pace to meet our goal of 30 tackles in the final five games (with 16 the past two weeks), but he needs to make more splash plays—sacks and turnovers—for the team to feel confident about him going into 2019.

Trending: Up ↑

K Zane Gonzalez

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

Week 14 Progress: Gonzalez went 1/2 on FGs in Week 14, missing from 54 and making a 22-yard chip shot. It would have been nice if he’d made the long one, but I’m not going to fault him too much for it, especially since he barely missed (hit the upright) and the team just lost 6 yards two plays previous to set up the longer kick. (His kick probably would have been good from 48.) I mean, I don’t think the team would have even attempted the FG with Phil Dawson still on the roster. Finally, Gonzalez also had touchbacks on both his kickoffs, so leg strength is not a problem—another improvement over Dawson.

What to Watch in Week 15: Gonzalez will be kicking in a dome this week (assuming the roof is closed in Atlanta), so weather won’t be a factor. And the Cardinals should have more than two scoring chances, so he should be able to show off his leg a bit. I’d love to see him get another crack at a 50-yarder. Will his miss last week still be rattling around in his mind?

Trending: Steady ↔

Final Thoughts

The home loss against the Lions was a bad one, and Nkemdiche’s injury was obviously unfortunate, but the rest of the players we’re monitoring played well enough, and Sherfield and Reddick both had nice games. So even if we’re losing on the scoreboard, there is still something to be gained from these final games. Hopefully these players can keep it up these next three weeks.

Any thoughts on these players, Cardinals fans? Do you think Rosen took a step forward last week? Did anyone else catch your eye out there? Let’s hash it out in the comments.