Rodgers-Cromartie Ready to be a Starter?

For years, Cardinals draft picks were expected to contribute immediately, with the higher picks penciled in as starters almost from the time their names were announced on draft day. Things are different this year. An improved talent base has allowed coaches to show some patience, and rookies now aren't playing until they're ready.

Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the 16th overall pick, has served as the team's nickel back, playing behind starters Eric Green and Rod Hood. Rodgers-Cromartie became a starter this week, which is unusual for a Cardinals first-round pick. In past years, players such as safety Antrel, Rolle, offensive tackle Levi Brown and receiver Larry Fitzgerald were expected to start from day one.

Rodgers-Cromartie needed the time to develop. He came from Tennessee State, a Football Championship Subdivision school, and Rodgers-Cromartie had difficulty adjusting. Not that his growing pains have ended. Rodgers-Cromartie yielded three touchdowns as a backup, so his move into the starting lineup won't be without challenges.

But he has a much better understanding of the NFL game now than he did in September. His chances of success are far greater now than they would have been had he been forced to start earlier in the year.

The Cardinals were able to show similar patience with running back Tim Hightower, who moved into the starting lineup two weeks ago.

It was obvious in camp that Hightower gave the club some different skills than starter Edgerrin James. Hightower is quicker, faster and better suited to a power game. It was clear last summer that the club needed to find a way to get Hightower 15 to 20 rushing attempts a game.

But coaches had the luxury of bringing Hightower along slowly. James is still an accomplished back who keeps the chains moving, rarely losing yards on a play.

Hightower was used in short-yardage and goal-line situations and was successful. That earned him some time in regular offensive schemes and he showed he could hang on to the ball as well as pick up blitzes.

Satisfied that Hightower was ready, coaches moved him into the starting lineup in Week 9.

Improved depth is allowing the Cardinals to take a similar path with defensive ends Calais Campbell, a second-round pick, and Kenny Iwebema, a fourth-rounder. Both are spot players in the base defense and have played well in those roles.

The development of the young players could pay a residual dividend in the offseason. It gives club officials some extra leverage in trying to re-sign some veterans, including defensive end Antonio Smith and Green, who are due to become unrestricted free agents.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We present a lot of mismatch problems. We can move guys around and get different mismatches on teams. I think that make it difficult to prepare for us." -- WR Anquan Boldin.

UNDER THE RADAR: The Cardinals aren't spending a lot of time wondering why tight end Stephen Spach was on the market at midseason. They are just glad he was there. Spach was signed two weeks ago and has bolstered a position beset by injuries. Spach has turned out to be an excellent blocker, which the club desperately needed. In his first game, he played 36 snaps, an indication that he picked up the offense quickly. Spach could be the team's No. 2 tight end the rest of the season.


--SS Adrian Wilson has fully recovered from a hamstring strain that limited him earlier this year. Coaches are using him in an expanded role, especially as a blitzer off the edge.

--WR Sean Morey has been one of the NFL's best special teams players for several years, and he's been excellent again this year. Morey excels on the coverage teams and he blocked a punt against Dallas that gave the club a victory in overtime.

--NT Bryan Robinson was a key free-agent signing in the offseason. Better suited to playing defensive end, Robinson has filled in at nose tackle and been a solid contributor.

--WR Early Doucet, a rookie, won't get much time this year unless there is an injury. Doucet has been dealing with injuries for much of the season, but has produced when healthy. But he's fifth on the depth chart.

--RB Edgerrin James is going to be active the rest of the year, even though he's a backup and doesn't play on any special teams. Coaches want to have James available in the event starter Tim Hightower is injured. The other running back, J.J. Arrington, isn't suited to carrying the load for a whole game.

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