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Bumpy Year For Rookie Class

Posted Dec 12, 2013

Injuries beat up group but future remains bright assuming comebacks

Running back Andre Ellington has had a good rookie season, although the Cards' class has been hurt by injuries.

Rookies tend to stick together, but the training room is one place they’d rather not congregate.

The theme for the Cardinals’ first-year class has been injuries, with Tyrann Mathieu’s ACL and LCL tears the latest in a litany of setbacks.

He will have surgery Friday and is out for the year, joining first-round pick Jonathan Cooper (broken leg) and fourth-rounder Alex Okafor (torn biceps) on season-ending injured reserve. Additionally, sixth-round pick Ryan Swope retired in July because of ongoing concussion problems, while running back Andre Ellington (knee) and linebacker Kevin Minter (hamstring) have also missed time.

This isn’t college anymore, but judging by the number of Cardinals rookies on the sidelines, you’d think redshirts were being distributed.

“It definitely has got us,” coach Bruce Arians said. “It’s a shame because we really needed them.”

In the perpetual win-now mode of the NFL, nobody wants to look ahead. However, despite the injuries, the rookie class has done enough to provide plenty of hope moving forward.

Ellington, a sixth-round pick out of Clemson, has been a revelation. He’s carried the ball 84 times for 487 yards and three touchdowns on the season and his yards-per-carry average of 5.8 is the best in the NFL.

Mathieu, a third-round pick from LSU, won the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month in October and was in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year before his knee injury on Sunday against the Rams. He finished the season with 68 tackles, two interceptions, a sack and a forced fumble. If he can become the same player once he returns from the knee injury, his future also looks bright.

Stepfan Taylor, a fifth-round pick out of Stanford, has done well in limited playing time.

“Coming in, we had a great class, I thought,” Taylor said. “It’s shown in different spurts at times. It’s just that all of us haven’t been on the field that much lately. I’m pretty positive we have a great class. When we’re given a shot and an opportunity, good things can happen.”

If Cooper, the No. 7 overall pick, and Minter, a second-round selection, can live up to their draft slots, it will be a great class. The rookies would join young core players like Patrick Peterson, Michael Floyd and Daryl Washington to give the team a solid base.

“It’s going to be exciting to see what the future is going to bring,” Ellington said.

General Manager Steve Keim said finding three impact players is the goal in every draft. Ellington and Mathieu have already proven to be two of those players and Cooper is expected to be No. 3.

The Cardinals may be short on rookies for the rest of this season, but these faces could become staples in the starting lineup for years to come.

 “At the end of the day, I think the class is going to be solid,” Keim said. “Now, is it going to be the 2004 draft class (which produced Larry Fitzgerald, Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett and Antonio Smith)? That remains to be seen. But guys like Coop, Tyrann and Ellington are going to be talented, long-term starters for years to come.”

Cooper said there is a special connection between the rookies because they experienced the same learning curve at the beginning of the season. When the others do well on the field, he gets excited.

“I try to go on Twitter and shout them out every time they’re doing something big,” Cooper said. “I’m proud of my rookie class and the things they’ve been able to do. Even the ones who aren’t as highly touted, they’re really showing up, and I’m proud of that fact.”

Cooper has come to grips with his injury because it happened several months ago. Mathieu’s is still fresh, so it’s tougher.

“I didn’t feel like I played my best,” Mathieu said. “I felt my best was still ahead of me.”

Luckily for Mathieu, he has plenty of time for it to come to fruition. He is the youngest player on the team at age 21 and won’t reach his prime for several seasons.

Despite this year’s setbacks, Father Time isn’t beating down the door of the rookies like it does to NFL veterans. As unfortunate as the injuries are, there is time to bounce back.

The Cardinals’ rookie class has shown a preview of its ability in 2013. It’s hoping the ensuing years will be the featured product.

 “I don’t think there’s any doubt about it that they’re going to be a really good class,” Arians said. “I’m not one of those guys that looks to next year, but I do think all of these guys do have great futures.”

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