When Owen Pappoe was making a name for himself in the SEC at Auburn, he had only heard stories about how grueling an NFL season was on the body.
With only two games left in his rookie season, he's surprised at how often players get hurt.
"In college, guys get hurt but not as frequently as it is on this level," Pappoe said. "It was kind of shocking to see."
Since the Cardinals opened the season in Washington, 31 different players have missed time this season. But that misfortune also creates opportunity. Pappoe earned his first start last weekend in Chicago, making the inside linebacker the 11th different rookie to start a game for the Cardinals this season.
While the Cardinals have the opportunity to play spoiler for the Eagles and Seahawks, that's not where coach Jonathan Gannon's focus lies. It revolves around leaving Philadelphia with a win and giving the rookies an opportunity to play meaningful snaps.
"Reps are gold right now for those guys and they'll take the next step," Gannon said.
Tackle Paris Johnson Jr. has been the only player to start all 15 games this season. He has yet to miss an offensive snap. Linebacker BJ Ojulari is the only other rookie to see the field every game. Wide receiver Michael Wilson has 10 starts and is trying to find his chemistry with Kyler Murray.
Defensive lineman Dante Stills and cornerback Kei'Trel Clark each have seven starts, while cornerback Garrett Williams has started five times in eight appearances. Quarterback Clayton Tune's sole start was in Cleveland.
General manager Monti Ossenfort also acquired undrafted rookies that have made an impact. Running back Emari Demercado has a pair of starts in a dozen appearances. Cornerback Starling Thomas V and tight end Elijah Higgins were claimed via waivers and have each seen the field as starters this season. Practice squad cornerback Divaad Wilson and tight end Blake Whiteheart have appeared in two games as well, with Wilson getting a start.
Veteran safety Budda Baker admitted he has never played on a team that has given so many snaps to first-year players, and has to remember it is a process for those players to learn the game.
"Everybody has the same mindset of just putting in the work every day," Pappoe said. "We're trying to be consistent and get one percent better and it's showing up on the field."
This has been a season that has it's attention on the present, but certainly is peeking towards the future as well. If there's a silver-lining within losing multiple veterans to injury, the young guys have had a chance to prove themselves.
"The biggest learning tool that you have, in my opinion, there's a lot of them, but the biggest one you have are game reps," Gannon said. "To be in a game, going against a different opponent when it matters and when it counts, under the lights, those are huge reps. For some of the younger guys, those are huge reps for them and big time learning experiences."
Gannon agreed that it is a positive since he's seen players grow as the season has progressed. Johnson's rise has been a steady one, he said , and Michael Wilson's impact has been felt in ways that the stat sheet might not indicate.
For Pappoe, most of his playing time has been on special teams. He recovered Matt Prater's onside kick in Week 8, the first player to successfully recover an onside kick in the NFL this season. He's embraced the specialist life, but injuries to Kyzir White and Josh Woods opened the door to a start, and Pappoe is hungry for more.
"I feel like sky's the limit," Pappoe said. "I feel like all the parts of my game haven't even begun to scratch the surface, so I'm still putting in the work every day. There's still a lot of areas in my game that need improving, but sky's the limit."
Images of the Cardinals practicing at the Dignity Health Sports Complex before the Week 17 regular season matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles