Proving Ground: Veterans with the most to prove in training cam

  •  Like a group of guys playing two-hand touch in a park , NFL players have been playing football in shorts (or jeans, as the case may be) for the past couple months. For the Arizona Cardinals, that ends today. But instead of grabbing a sixer of refreshing Bud Light Lime like the park guys, the Redbirds will be picking up their shoulder pads and starting to play some real football. That’s right—training camp starts today in Glendale.Training camp is the time to stop talking and start proving it on the field. That goes for everyone—established veterans, free agent acquisitions, up-and-coming young players, and (obviously) rookies. While there will be a lot of eyes on Josh Rosen, Christian Kirk, and the rest of the rookie class, I want to focus on veterans who have a lot more to lose than high draft picks who figure to be back next year no matter what (or late picks with low expectations). These are guys who are competing for a starting job, looking for their second contract, or even fighting for a roster spot.Here are the Cardinals veterans I have identified with the most to prove in training camp:QB Sam BradfordThe Cardinals’ biggest free agent signing in the offseason, Bradford should be the most-watched player this preseason. Has he fully recovered from his knee injuries? Can he establish a rapport with Fitz, DJ, and the rest of our playmakers? Can he hold off the hyped rookie breathing down his neck? There are those who want to give the starting QB job to Rosen, but remember that the last time Bradford played a full NFL game, he put up Kurt Warner-esque numbers. Can he recapture that magic with the Redbirds? The season may depend on it.RBs D.J. Foster and Elijhaa PennyBoth of these guys saw time at RB last year in the wake of DJ’s injury, and both have contributed on special teams. But Foster and Penny now find themselves on the roster bubble, with DJ, rookie Chase Edmonds, and redshirt second-year player T.J. Logan firmly ahead of them on the RB depth chart. With a crowded backfield, it is likely one (or both) misses the cut this year. Can Penny carve out a new role with his versatility? Can former Sun Devil Foster make enough of an impact on special teams to stick around in the desert? This RB battle might not be decided until the final week of the preseason.WR Chad WilliamsMany were surprised when GM Steve Keim used a 3rd-round draft pick on a relatively unknown WR from Grambling State last year. But he looked the part and put up good numbers in college (albeit against FCS competition), so maybe we had a steal on our hands? Not so much—to say that Williams underwhelmed in his rookie season would be an understatement (3 whole catches). But that’s in the past, along with last season’s coaching staff. With the WR depth chart as open as it’s ever been behind Fitz, can Williams carve out a role for himself? The names he’s competing with aren’t exactly imposing—Kirk, Brice Butler, J.J. Nelson, Greg Little. If he can’t beat out any of those names, is he even worth a roster spot at this point?TE Ricky Seals-JonesSeals-Jones has been in the news recently for both good and bad reasons. Obviously, his recent legal troubles have cast a shadow over his offseason , but he also flashed potential as a weapon at TE late last season, snagging 12 balls for 201 yards and 3 TDs from Weeks 11–15. Tight end wasn’t emphasized in the Bruce Arians era, but new OC Mike McCoy has been known to feature the position at previous stops. Yes, Jermaine Gresham is still on the roster (and still has that big contract), but if Seals-Jones produces, he’ll play. His legal situation and rapport with our new QBs will be worth monitoring as the weeks go on. Having a consistent playmaker at TE would be a huge boon given our unproven WR depth.CB Brandon WilliamsIt’s not a good year for Cardinals named Williams, is it? (TE Bryce is also on the roster bubble.) At least Brandon’s roster spot seems to be safer than Chad’s, and for the third time in three seasons, he’s firmly in the mix to start at corner opposite Patrick Peterson. The results have been mixed thus far, to put it mildly. He won the position battle his rookie year and started Week 1鈥?and was promptly roasted by future divisional foe Jimmy Garoppolo. He fell way down the depth chart last season and barely contributed. Now, he’s another guy with a clean slate, and some feel he can finally break out. I have my doubts, but, like Chad, the other names on the depth chart are very beatable (new additions Jamar Taylor, Ben茅 Benwikere, and injured rookie Chris Campbell). This is likely Williams’s last chance to impress. Will he make the most of it?Final ThoughtsOf course, these players aren’t the only ones with work to do in training camp. A few quick-hit questions:Will Evan Boehm and Will Holden be able to hold onto their roster spots on the O-line?Can Robert Nkemdiche put it all together and stay out of another coach’s doghouse?Can Benson Mayowa make an impact off the edge while Markus Golden recovers from injury?Can Scooby Wright find a way to contribute on defense, rather than just special teams?Does Phil Dawson have a reason to look over his shoulder in UDFA Matt McCrane?There are tons of other players with something to prove in training camp. Which ones did we miss? What are your thoughts on the players listed above? Give us a shout in the comments and we can debate until the first preseason game—August 11 against the Chargers. Real football is almost here!Age Gap: Do the Cardinals Have a Problem with a Lack of Young Talent? 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? 鈥ight?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? 鈥ight?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 BirdsAfter 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 Cheap Chase Edmonds Jersey , 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 EffectOne 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 ThoughtsOverall, 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!