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The Rookie Waiting Game

No matter the draft pedigree, Cardinals won't rush young players


Rookie linebacker Daryl Washington (58) will be eased into working, while second-year safety Rashad Johnson is still trying to earn his way on the field.

FLAGSTAFF – Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie made a Pro Bowl after just two seasons in the NFL.

But at this point as a rookie back in 2008, he wasn't even starting. He was just trying to find playing time, and he was behind the forgettable Eric Green on the depth chart. DRC stayed there for a while too, because despite his obvious talent, he wasn't starting full-time until the Cards were six games into the season.

"I knew I had older guys ahead that were smarter than me," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "From an athletic standpoint I was like, 'Something has to give.' But I waited my turn. I'm a patient guy."

If you are a Cardinal rookie, patience is more than a virtue. It's a necessity.

Some teams drop first-year players right into the starting lineup, but coach Ken Whisenhunt doesn't believe in that. It's about learning the game first – and maybe, just a little bit, about making sure a player doesn't think he's arrived too quickly.

Tackle Levi Brown, the Cards' first-round pick in 2007 – Whisenhunt's first year – did play from the outset, but that was on a line with few options. Brown was the exception to the rule. DRC waited. Last season, running back Beanie Wells didn't have more than seven carries in a game through the first four games of the season and technically remains behind Tim Hightower on the depth chart because Hightower has a more well-rounded game (although Wells was getting more carries at the end of last season).

This year, the Cards are looking to work first-round pick Dan Williams into the nose tackle rotation, but he'll likely be behind veterans Bryan Robinson or Gabe Watson to start the year – and maybe both. Second-round pick Daryl Washington is desperately needed among the inside linebacker mix, but for now, he remains third-string.

"You don't want to put a guy out there who doesn't know how to react to situations," Whisenhunt said. "When does that happen? I don't know. It's hard to get enough from training camp to know he can handle everything. Preseason games area great tool because that is the first chance you get to see them exposed under the lights. Sometimes it takes regular season games. What you look for is a pattern of consistency."

Since the coaches are consistent with their message, it comes through clearly.

Tackle Brandon Keith was a seventh-round pick in 2008, certainly carrying with him no expectations of playing right away. He sat for virtually two seasons – briefly appearing in only four games – yet he is now stepping in to start on the right side.

"It shows it doesn't matter where you get selected, 'We have a plan for you,' " Keith said. "Your time will come. It may not come this year or in this game, but it will come.

"They are trying to let you know there is other talent on this roster. You might be talented as can be, but if you don't learn this or see this, it is going to hurt the football team."

Earning a spot is the theme Whisenhunt's staff employs. This isn't the 2004 Cardinals, where Dennis Green arrived as coach and installed his top four draft picks – wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, linebacker Karlos Dansby and center Alex Stepanovich – as starters before they had ever taken the field in Flagstaff.

Three of the four turned out to be very good players, but they all had bumpy starts to their careers.

Of course, those Cards were coming off a five-win season. Whisenhunt has shown the Cardinals to be winners and has built depth on this team Green never could. That makes easier to sit rookies at first, and, in the course of trying to win, almost makes it automatic.

"You want them to learn it here (in practice) instead of on Sunday," passing game coordinator Mike Miller said.

There might be times when a young player might be ready to usurp a veteran but hasn't on the depth chart -- "That has happened before, but that's part of the game," defensive end Calais Campbell said – but mostly, rookies who aren't playing simply shouldn't.

That's a giant playbook they inherit when they get to camp, and they can't possibly know enough of it early.

"Think of the rookies they got in here," wide receiver Steve Breaston said. "Beanie was injured. DRC, he was a freak of talent – he could jump an out route – but he still had to get used to the system. Sometimes jumping an out route in a game isn't the greatest thing.

"Sometimes if you throw a guy into the fire, they don't progress. They tend to go backward."
And that doesn't do anyone any good.

"I tell them, the ones that want to play, 'OK, you need to just sit down for a little bit and chill,' Rodgers-Cromartie said. "You're trying to eat right now, and your chance is coming. That's what they told me when I came in, when I was trying to steal reps – 'Man, your time is coming.' "

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