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Age Gap: Do the Cardinals Have a Problem with a Lack of Young Talent?

It seems like just a few seasons ago the Cardinals’ roster was full of exciting young players. Now, not so much. What gives?

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2018 NFL Draft Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

You may remember the list from Pro Football Weekly from a couple months ago featuring the best NFL players under 25 years old. If you don’t remember it, there’s probably a good reason: it didn’t feature a single Cardinal. But the list only had 25 players, so I’m sure most Cardinals fans didn’t sweat it too much. We’ve got plenty of good young players, right? …Right?

Well, ESPN released a similar list last week—this one a complete roster of almost 50 of the best players under 25 in the league, featuring starters and honorable mentions for every position. Surely a list this deep would have at least a Cardinal or two, right? …Right?

As I’m sure you can tell by now, there are no Cardinals on ESPN’s list either—not even an honorable mention. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise—given former HC Bruce Arians’s preference for playing veterans over rookies and GM Steve Keim’s penchant for signing veteran castoffs (his famous “Keim Time” signings), the Redbirds had the oldest roster in the league last season, and we were ranked near the bottom of the league in the recently released ESPN Future Power Rankings as well.

But even with Arians out (and Steve Wilks in), the perception around the league is that the Cardinals lack elite young players. So, is this true? Do we really have a dearth of young talent on this roster? If so, is that indicative of a larger problem in the organization? Let’s take a closer look at these lists and the Redbirds’ roster and see what we can find out.

What’s My Age Again?

First things first, it’s worth noting that the cutoff of 25 years is somewhat arbitrary, generally meaning players still on their first contract in the league—ascendant, up-and-coming talent. Now, while the Cardinals may not have landed any players on either of these lists, three of our most important players are between 26 and 28 years old, firmly in their prime: RB David Johnson (26), pass rusher Chandler Jones (28), and CB Patrick Peterson (28). These guys are also all probably in the top 5 at their respective positions and should be elite for at least a few more seasons. So it’s not like the Redbirds are a group of geriatrics or anything.

But we do want young players waiting in the wings when these guys start to age. So it’s a bit concerning if our cupboard is bare, as it is according to these articles. But is it really? Do the Redbirds have anyone these lists may have missed?

Baby Birds

After a review of the Redbirds’ roster, there are only a few names that seem like they would merit consideration for these lists, due to either draft position or production. Here they are in order from oldest to youngest. (Let us know if we missed anyone in the comments!)

  • LT D.J. Humphries (24) – Humphries has come a long way from his “Knee Deep” days, turning into a solid, if not elite, tackle. But he also dealt with injury concerns last season, and these lists are about elite players, not merely solid. And he’ll be 25 by the time these lists come out next season, so it’s too late for Humphries for this exercise.
  • DT Robert Nkemdiche (23) – Our 2016 1st-round pick, it’s hard to call Nkemdiche anything but a bust thus far—he has only 12 career tackles and no sacks in two injury-plagued seasons. Can Wilks and new DC Al Holcomb help turn his career around? Even if they can, it’s tough to imagine Nkemdiche becoming an elite player at this point. Perhaps, like Humphries, Arians’s constant criticisms affected both his development and perception around the league.
  • LB Haason Reddick (23) – Reddick failed to make much of an impact in his rookie season, but a lot of that can be blamed on playing out of position due to injuries in our linebacking corps. Perhaps the new regime can help him unlock more of his talent. But enough to move him past the Myles Jacks and Deion Joneses of the league? Doubtful.
  • S Budda Baker (22) – A Pro Bowler as a special teamer last season, Baker has to be the closest Cardinal to making these lists—and he likely would have if they had considered special teams outside of K/P. With the Honey Badger now out of the picture, Baker will have his chance to make his mark in the secondary this season. Can he leapfrog Chargers rookie Derwin James on the list next season?
  • Josh Rosen (21) and Christian Kirk (21) – That brings us to this year’s rookie class. It’s hard to argue that Rosen, the fourth QB chosen, and Kirk, a 2nd-rounder, really merited inclusion over the likes of proven players like Deshaun Watson, Jared Goff, Stefon Diggs, and Tyreek Hill. But as those players age off the lists and Rosen and Kirk (hopefully) become key players for the Redbirds’ offense, it’s plausible that they crack the list in a couple years.

The Arians Effect

One factor that has to be considered in the Cardinals missing the cut on these lists is, as mentioned above, Bruce Arians’s seeming disdain for young players—rookies especially. BA was an old-school coach who mostly preferred to rely on veterans on gameday and took a tough love approach with young players—“Knee Deep,” calling out Nkemdiche, nicknaming Baker “Fish Bait.”

This approach had a few effects that likely led to the Redbirds missing out on these lists: 1) Our young players didn’t get onto the field as much as they might have on other teams as BA tried to guide the team to the playoffs every season, 2) The national perception of a lot of these players might have suffered due to BA’s nicknames and press conference criticisms, and 3) BA’s tactics (some might say “antics”) might’ve impacted Keim’s reputation as a GM/evaluator of young talent.

Let’s talk specifically about that last one. Many fans have griped about Keim’s draft day performance for the past couple years, and with good reason—looking back our last few drafts, the 2016-2017 classes are bereft of impact players aside from Baker (and potentially Reddick), and several picks aren’t even on the roster anymore (paging Dorian Johnson and Marqui Christian). But just a few seasons ago, Keim’s reputation was much stronger—in 2015 alone, he drafted three key starters in Johnson, Humphries, and pass rusher Markus Golden. The next season, DJ and the Honey Badger both placed on this ESPN list, and we had other exciting young players like Deone Bucannon and John Brown. Again, I think it’s fair to say that BA might be partially to blame for the lack of development of our young players as he desperately tried to keep the Super Bowl window open.

Final Thoughts

Overall, it seems like PFF and ESPN were more or less correct in leaving the Cardinals off their lists of the best under-25 players in the league. Of the guys in the list above, they’re either solid at best or it’s too early to tell how they’ll turn out. So while our cupboard isn’t exactly bare, it isn’t overflowing either like it seemed to be in years past either.

All of which leads me to think that the team will be better off in Wilks’s hands rather than another year under Arians. Don’t get me wrong—Arians is the probably the best coach the team has had since its move to the Valley, and is certainly the most memorable—but his approach with young players seems to have stunted their development a bit. And for his part, Wilks is already saying all the right things about our two most important rookies. If he can maximize the potential of this 2018 draft class, the Cardinals will be in a lot better shape as an organization—and maybe we’ll make one of these lists in the next year or two.

So what do you think, Redbirds fans? Is it fair to blame BA for the lack of elite young players? Do you still have faith in Steve Keim as GM? And are these lists meaningless exercises by the national media, or do they provide a useful lens to look at your team through? Let us know what you think in the comments!