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Cardinals Getting Rookie Help They've Long Wanted

Draft class has been an important part of playing time

Rookie defensive lineman Dante Stills (55) tries to fight through a hold to make a play against the Ravens last weekend.
Rookie defensive lineman Dante Stills (55) tries to fight through a hold to make a play against the Ravens last weekend.

Most players dream of busting out a celebration after making a big time play in the NFL. Rookie defensive lineman Dante Stills had one in mind when he picked up his first career sack against Joe Burrow, and his second a few weeks later against Lamar Jackson.

Until he froze.

"After it happens, I just go black, and (my mind) just goes blank," Stills said with a smile. "I will have a sack celebration the next time."

That happens. Stills is still a rookie, and rookie mistakes are a thing. But the Cardinals are willing to live with such things if they can get as many meaningful snaps out of their rookies as they have. First-year players have started 27 games through Week 8.

To compare it to last season, the 2022 draft class had 22 starts as rookies, with tight end Trey McBride accounting for 13 of them.

Sixth overall pick Paris Johnson Jr. has started every game this season at right tackle. BJ Ojulari has been getting into the outside linebacker rotation. Cornerback Garrett Williams picked up his first interception in his season debut against the Seahawks, and fellow third-round pick Michael Wilson, has been one of the top wide receivers all season.

Outside of center Jon Gaines II, who went down with an injury during the preseason, and fifth-round pick Clayton Tune, who could start this weekend against the Browns, the rest of the picks have also contributed.

Owen Pappoe has been a stud on special teams, recovering Matt Prater’s onside kick. The pair of sixth-round picks, cornerback Kei'Trel Clark and Stills, have started multiple games this year.

"They're team-first guys," coach Jonathan Gannon said of the rookies. "They they have a lot of pride. They work on their game. They take to coaching. They're positive.

"You see all those guys have elevated their game and there are a lot of those guys that are playing meaningful snaps for us right now."

Rookie linebacker B.J. Ojulari celebrates his first NFL sack against the Ravens.
Rookie linebacker B.J. Ojulari celebrates his first NFL sack against the Ravens.

Gannon also credited general manager Monti Ossenfort for bringing in undrafted rookies like running back Emari Demercado and claiming cornerback Starling Thomas V off waivers.

A player like Stills, coming in in the seventh round, can be extra valuable if he can develop into an important piece of the roster.

"He's taken a huge step in both the run game and his pass rush," defensive coordinator Nick Rallis said. "In the run game, I was pretty harsh on him for escaping blocks a certain way or not using his hands or taking false steps. You just don't see that happening right now."

The defensive line has lost L.J. Collier, Carlos Watkins, Jonathan Ledbetter, and Kevin Strong, for multiple games this season, and Rallis challenged Stills and the other defensive linemen to win their one-on-one battles. Stills finished the Ravens game with his first multi-sack performance of his career.

"I learned a lot from the guys just going through OTAs or in camp, or even the first game when I didn't play, I was watching and learning what they're doing," Stills said. "When guys go down, I have to step in."

Veteran safety Budda Baker noted that this class has come in ready to play immediately, and that was crucial for a roster that was being reset. Johnson Jr. said his class has earned their respect through practicing hard and having it translate to the game.

"In the locker room, we've had a lot of talks within our rookie class on how much we can make an impact on this season," Stills said. "I think we're all taking the right steps on becoming big role players, starters, whatever. Everybody from the offensive side of the ball, defensive side of the ball, I feel like we're all handling business very well."

Images of the Cardinals practicing at the Dignity Health Sports Complex before the Week 9 regular season matchup against the Cleveland Browns

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