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Hidden gems?: Three young players who could pay dividends this season

In this slow news week, let’s take a look at some potential surprise contributors for the Cardinals this season.

NFL: SEP 13 Cardinals at 49ers
Can last year’s 4th-round pick, Leki Fotu, make an impact this season for the Cardinals?
Photo by MSA/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Although there are likely a few post-June 1 roster moves in the pipeline, the 2021 Arizona Cardinals roster is largely already built. The next few months before the season starts will be about roster shaping. Who are the starters? Who’s going to get cut?

Today, I thought I’d take a look at a few veterans in between. (As rookies haven’t really contributed much in the Kliff Kingsbury era.) Not projected starters, but not likely to be cut, these players aren’t exactly projected to be big contributors this season. But if a few things break right for them, they could help take this team to the next level. We don’t necessarily need these guys to contribute much this season—in, in all likelihood, they won’t—but the potential is there.

Let’s find out who they are.

OL Josh Jones

I still remember how excited Cardinals fans were when we landed Jones on draft day last year. He was considered a 1st-round talent who slid to the 3rd round. Most draft analysts loved the pick, and observers anointed him the eventual starter at RT—likely in his second season.

Well, here we are heading into his second season and Jones, who barely played as a rookie, doesn’t seem likely to crack the starting lineup. Unheralded free agent Kelvin Beachum came from seemingly nowhere (well, the Jets—basically nowhere) to lock down the RT job. The RG job is open, but another former RT (Justin Murray) or another unheralded veteran (Brian Winters) figures to start there.

So where does that leave Jones? For now, he’s projected for another season of riding the pine. But there’s almost the entire offseason program ahead of him, and we know that offensive linemen go down all the time. It’s very easy to imagine a scenario where injury or ineffectiveness forces Jones into the lineup. If that happens, either at RT or RG, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he flourished given his pedigree and athleticism. This kind of O-line depth is a luxury the Cardinals have seldom had.

DL Leki Fotu

Jones’s draftmate Fotu played a bit more as a rookie, but still not much—just about a quarter of the defensive snaps as he dealt with minor injuries. The 4th-round pick did flash some ability as a penetrator (4 TFLs, 3 QB hits, 1 sack), but he largely failed to make the immediate impact many hoped for when the team drafted the 6’5”, 330 lb behemoth.

A hopefully healthy and hungry Fotu gets a mulligan in 2021, and he has a much more clear path to regular playing time than Jones. He figures to be a big part of the defensive line rotation, especially at DT, where there’s currently a Corey Peters–sized hole. (I suppose Peters could still return, but the team appears to be in no hurry to bring him back. An injury to someone on the line could change things, though.) Fotu is the only true NT-type player on the roster, which also helps his case as a potential breakout player.

Right now, he looks to be behind Jordan Phillips at DT, and he’ll have to fend off fellow second-year lineman Rashard Lawrence (who could have made this list himself) as well. Plus future HOFer J.J. Watt can slide over to DT in some packages. No one is counting on Fotu to put it all together this year and become a starting-caliber player, but the tantalizing possibility is there.

S Deionte Thompson

Like the other players on this list, Thompson was a somewhat-hyped midround pick, coming to the team as a 5th-round pick in 2019. Thompson, now heading into his third year, was a standout at Alabama, but he hasn’t made much of an impact as a Cardinal, playing only about 1/3 of the snaps on both defense and special teams. He has started a few games (6, to be exact) due to injuries, but the big-play ability he showed in college (2 INTs, 3 FF, 1 FR as a junior) hasn’t translated to the NFL.

Not helping Thompson’s case is the crowded depth chart at safety. Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson are locked in as starters, veterans Chris Banjo and Charles Washington were brought back, and the team spent a 7th-round pick on James Wiggins, whom they like a lot. This Thompson probably has too much potential to get cut outright, but he faces an uphill battle for regular playing time.

So why did he make this list? Sure, he could make a splash in sub packages, or injuries could force him into the lineup, but I think Thompson’s biggest contribution to the team could be as trade bait. He’s still young (just 24) and was a well-regarded prospect—surely some team would give up something for his services? Perhaps he could be traded for another player at a position of need (like CB or TE), but even a conditional draft pick would be useful. Something to keep an eye on as the summer goes on.

Final Thoughts

Good teams always get help from unexpected places, get big contributions from unsung players. This season, Josh Jones, Leki Fotu, and Deionte Thompson could fit the bill for the Cardinals. Let us know what you think of these players—or any other hidden gems you have your eye on—in the comments.