Cardinals began to ‘build through the draft’ in 2023

It’s been well chronicled that the Arizona Cardinals received significant production from their 2023 rookies, but it wasn’t limited to the draft. Yes, eight picks combined to play 108 games and start 52, including right tackle Paris Johnson Jr. who started every game and never missed a snap. Those numbers would certainly have been higher had offensive lineman Jon Gaines II, a fourth-round pick, not injured his knee and spent the season on injured reserve.

In addition, running back Emari Demercado was on the roster the entire season after being signed as an undrafted free agent, while tight end Blake Whiteheart, another undrafted free agent, finished the year on the roster after starting off on the practice squad.

Then there were waiver claims: tight end Elijah Higgins and cornerback Star Thomas V who were on the roster all season, along with linebacker Trevor Nowaske who was a late-season addition. Tight end Travis Vokolek was signed off the Ravens’ practice squad. Those other six players started 12 games and played in 41.

Asked at the NFL combine about giving rookies an opportunity to play, head coach Jonathan Gannon said, “Some coaches don’t like to do that. I don’t mind that. We put out the guys we think can win the game and if they happen to be a rookie or a second-year guy, so be it. I think ideally you want a good mix of different experience levels and players, but we know moving forward, the bulk of the team hopefully comes from last draft, this coming draft and the 2025 draft.

“In my opinion, you want to build through the draft and supplement through free agency. But to do that, you’ve got to hit on those. You have to make the proper decisions. And it’s not a perfect science. But yeah, I always was on board with playing young guys because I always thought the quicker they get to play, the quicker you see what they are. That could be good or bad, like maybe you don’t fit here or maybe you do. But you’ve got to see them to make a fair evaluation. A lot of coaches fight and are like, ‘I don’t want to play this guy,’ but it’s, ‘No, we’re going to play these guys and develop them and let’s make sure he gets better from Week 1 to Week 2’ and that’s what our staff did.”

Here is a review of the team’s rookie game participation from 2023 (games/starts/did not play/inactive):

Draft picks

Undrafted free agents

  • RB Emari Demercado: 14/2/0/3

  • TE Blake Whiteheart: 2/0/0/8

Waiver claims

  • CB Star Thomas V, Lions undrafted free agent: 12/7/0/5

  • LB Elijah Higgins, Dolphins sixth round: 11/3/0/6

  • LB Trevor Nowaske, Lions undrafted free agent: 2/0/0/0 (inactive 7 games with Detroit)

Free agent

  • TE Travis Vokolek, Ravens undrafted free agent signed off practice squad: 2/0/0/1

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Story originally appeared on Cards Wire