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Arizona rookie coming on strong after slow start

Andre Roberts admits he was lost in training camp, overwhelmed by the transition from football at The Citadel to the complex, competitive world of the NFL.

With a military background to keep him disciplined, Roberts kept working — catching passes after practice day after day, running routes, working on his punt returns. Suddenly, it all seems to have clicked for the speedy, soft-spoken wide receiver.

In last week's 27-26 victory over Dallas, Roberts had his best day yet: five catches for 110 yards, including a 74-yarder for a touchdown.

"I didn't have the training camp or preseason that I wanted," he said after Wednesday's workout, "but it's getting better every day."

The Cardinals thought highly enough of Roberts, an FCS (formerly NCAA Division I-AA) All-American, to make him a third-round pick, and he seemed to feel pressure of living up to expectations of someone drafted relatively early. In camp in Flagstaff, he quickly became known for dropping passes and fumbling punts.

"I knew he was frustrated," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "I think that anytime you're a draft pick, especially one of the higher ones, there's always pressure and there's expectations and he didn't feel like he was living up to those, and other players are looking at you. It's a tough deal. I think part of the reason he's having success now is because mentally, he was tough enough to hang in with it and continue working."

More than a few onlookers wondered if the Cardinals had made a big mistake. Whisenhunt, though, said he never second-guessed the pick.

"That happens with rookies and a lot of young players," he said. "You have to go through that. I learned from coach (Bill) Cowher that you have to be patient with those guys. Everybody is different. It's obviously paying off for us now."

Roberts finally got his first catch in Game 5 against New Orleans. But he took a huge step back the following Sunday in Seattle.

He fumbled a punt that Seattle recovered at the Arizona 2-yard line, one of several Cardinals mistakes in a 22-10 loss.

Whisenhunt calls Roberts' development "kind of a slow process," but he remembers the play that seemed to turn the rookie's season around.

"He had one third down catch, I don't remember exactly which game it was, and he made a good catch," the coach said. "It was in tight coverage. It wasn't an easy catch and he caught it and got the first and I thought right there that was a big play. You could see his confidence start to build from that point."

Roberts' path mirrors that of John Skelton, a fifth-round pick from Fordham who had trouble grasping the offense in training camp, losing the backup quarterback battle to undrafted rookie Max Hall.

When he finally got his chance, Skelton made the most of it. He will get his fourth straight start in Sunday's season finale at San Francisco. Skelton and Roberts have been close since they began workouts last summer.

"Him and I both went through the same struggles being rookies, kind of being from smaller schools," Skelton said. "I wouldn't say overwhelmed, but kind of taken in with everything being a rookie in the NFL. From where we were both in training camp to where we are now is completely different. It's just the hard work that both of us have put in."

Roberts said his big Christmas night against the Cowboys, on national television, has bolstered his belief in himself.

"It helps me build confidence, knowing that I can do it," he said, "and the coaches have confidence in me to do it."

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