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30 touches for David Johnson? Maybe. Likely not

Posted by Darren Urban on July 17, 2017 – 9:43 am

The subject of David Johnson and his potential touches per game this season has been a ongoing theme this offseason. It came up again this weekend when the Cardinals’ running back attended a fantasy football event (fantasy football is the No. 1 reason so many people want to know about Johnson’s touches this season, in an effort to forecast his production.)

Back at the owners’ meetings in March, Bruce Arians first talked about Johnson getting 30 touches — rushing attempts plus receptions — per game. When Johnson threw out the first pitch at a Diamondbacks game in April, he said there was no reason why he couldn’t get 30 touches a game.

“I never really got fatigued,” Johnson said then. “Those tough defense games against Seattle and the Rams, those games might feel a little sore, but that’s not until the adrenaline comes down. I never really feel too bad.”

Arians has said he’ll be smart about it. And the likelihood of Johnson averaging 30 touches a game, or even reaching that number a lot, just isn’t great.

Last season, one in which Johnson threatened to gain 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving, Johnson didn’t come close to averaging 30 touches a game. In fact, he led the league in touches at “only” 23.3. (Take out his injury-shortened finale, when he only had eight touches before going out with a scary knee injury, and Johnson still only averaged 24.3 touches a game.) Only three times did Johnson reach 30 touches in 2017, when he was the undisputed bellcow of the offense: 30 at San Francisco, 41 at home in the overtime tie against Seattle, and 32 in the late-season win at Seattle. (He had 29 at Minnesota and 27 against Washington.)

Make no mistake. Johnson will again be the centerpiece of the offense. There will be days when he gets 30 touches. But circumstances will be different each game. Defenses will create new challenges. Arians will want his receivers involved. There will be reasons at times to not overdo it with Johnson, too, something Arians has acknowledged. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense that he will average that many. Unless it’s against Seattle.


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Cardinals still blitz-happy under Arians

Posted by Darren Urban on July 13, 2017 – 1:15 pm

Bruce Arians kept his promise. The Cardinals acquired Chandler Jones last offseason (and were counting on Markus Golden taking another step forward as a pass rusher) and yet before the season he said he still wouldn’t be happy unless the Cards were blitzing.

“If we’ve got four good ones, why not send five or six?” Arians said then.

The Cards got what they wanted out of Jones (11 sacks) and Golden (12.5 sacks). But they also kept blitzing. Pro Football Focus has the numbers (and a couple of gifs for examples). NFL teams blitz an average of 30 percent of the time, PFF says, and about 38 percent in obvious passing situations. The Cardinals in 2016? Blitzing nearly 41 percent of the time (and 41.4 percent on first downs.) PFF makes the point that, in blitzing, it gives teams less chance to double-team when blocking. But in the end, Arians just likes to bring the pressure. It’s the defensive equivalent of the deep shots B.A. likes to take on offense. What, you thought because B.A. is an offensive guy that “No risk-it, no biscuit” was restricted to offense?

It’s also followed the change in DC from Todd Bowles — who blitzed a lot — to James Bettcher. With the addition of rookie inside linebacker Haason Reddick (who played a pass-rushing defensive end at Temple) and a healthy Tyrann Mathieu, there seem to be more blitzing options heading into 2017.


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Post-season cancer surgery for Arians

Posted by Darren Urban on July 11, 2017 – 12:30 pm

Bruce Arians had a rough year health-wise in 2016. There was a scare in San Diego in the preseason (Arians had diverticulitis), and then another hospital check after “discomfort” in late November. Now, in his new book released today called “The Quarterback Whisperer,” Arians acknowledges there was third health concern that had to be taken care of after the season.

Arians writes that he was out to dinner with his wife, Chris, in December when he got a call from his doctor. Arians had just been to the doctor to get a hernia checked, and his ultrasound revealed a small spot on his kidney — renal cell carcinoma. Amazingly, Arians coached the remainder of the season before having surgery to remove a “small portion” of the kidney in February.

“Now I feel great,” Arians writes. “My energy has returned. I’m told I’m cancer-free again. I’m ready for at least one more season of NFL football—maybe more.”

Arians had to deal with a lot of heartbreak around that time. Both his brother-in-law and his longtime agent passed away from cancer. Arians also has a history with the disease. He battled prostate cancer in 2007, and had to have some cancerous cells scraped off his nose during his first summer work with the Cardinals in 2013.

“I now realize more than ever nothing is guaranteed in life,” Arians writes. “Every day needs to enjoyed and celebrated to the fullest. Roses need to be smelled, sunsets savored, time with family cherished. Moving forward, I want to be a beacon of hope for others struggling with cancer. My fight is their fight. I’m not coaching for myself in 2017; I’m coaching for everyone who’s dealing with cancer. This is my charge.”


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A Badger in London

Posted by Darren Urban on July 11, 2017 – 8:49 am

In advance of the Cardinals’ Week 8 trip to London to play the Rams, safety Tyrann Mathieu is there now as part of an NFL contingent publicizing all four of the 2017 London games. Each of the eight teams involved sent a player over, and today Mathieu was at Twickenham — where the Cards will play — doing interviews, taking part in photo shoots and having a talk with soccer star Bayo Akinfewna (who has some NFL size and is nicknamed “The Beast.”)

The players will spend a few days in London hyping the games. In the U.K., the NFL sells “season tickets” to all four games for those who want to attend all of them, and even though two games will be played at Wembley Stadium and two at Twickenham (which is outside the city), there is a group marketing effort.

Mathieu is a natural ambassador for the Cardinals. High-profile with a good personality, he is also hoping that he can regain his 2015 form as the 2017 season unfolds.

By the time Mathieu (whose exploits are being chronicled by our video department, so there will a video to watch somewhere down the line) returns at the end of the week, the offseason will have nearly run its course. Players report to training camp a week from Friday, with the first practice coming a week from Saturday.


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About that roster spot …

Posted by Darren Urban on July 10, 2017 – 1:51 pm

As I come back off vacation, things are still quiet around the Cardinals’ facility. Coaches and players won’t start filtering in until next week (report day for training camp is a week from Friday, with the first practice on July 22, a week from Saturday.) This is the time when the radar gets raised for a potential veteran signing for training camp.

The Cardinals currently have one open spot on the 90-man roster, a vacancy created the last time the Cards made moves more than a month ago. Odds are that it would be more of a fringe guy to fill out a position heading into camp, a name that most won’t recognize. But it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to have someone with a better chance of making the roster. The last we heard from GM Steve Keim, the team was monitoring a bunch of veterans who were possibilities (assuming the price was right.)

There are cornerbacks out there, although if  you are floating around right now, there are questions: Darrelle Revis is price v. age (and since he is already making $6 million this season and has offset language, he may not be motivated to play), Sam Shields has dealt with concussions, Brandon Flowers and Alterraun Verner are smaller. When last we heard from running back Chris Johnson, he said he was still in contact with the team. Maybe there is a guard to compete with Evan Boehm (besides rookie Dorian Johnson.)

One thing that seems certain: Adding whomever it is won’t be the only move of camp. Since Keim took over as GM, the Cardinals have averaged 18 roster moves from camp-opening week through the first cut to 75. (Again, don’t forget that a new rule means there won’t be a cut to 75 this season, only the final cut, which will take teams from 90 to 53.) The roster, through performance and injuries, will be churned soon enough.


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For what it’s worth in June, offensive edition

Posted by Darren Urban on June 23, 2017 – 11:40 am

With about a month left before training camp (already?!?), it’s time to take a look at who I think the offensive starters will be come Sept. 10, when the Cardinals play the Lions in Detroit to begin the regular season. Could a training camp signing change things? Sure. I see more of a chance of that defensively than offensively.

My defensive thoughts are here. And after that, the blog posts will slow. Time off coming.

QB – Carson Palmer. You can’t get anywhere without a quarterback. Palmer finished strong in 2016. He’s a year older, yes, and no one is calling him a top-five QB. But he’s still very good when the offense functions well, and when his receivers don’t let him down.

RB – David Johnson. MVP-type player. Is he going to get 100 scrimmage yards every game? Maybe not, but he’s certainly going to have the opportunity. With his skills, and health, I’m not ruling out a 1,000-1,000 season.

WR – Larry Fitzgerald. After Bruce Arians had said more than once Fitz’s 100-catch days were behind him, Fitz has had two straight 100-catch seasons. Won’t be surprised to see him do it again. The question will be, is this his last season?

WR – Smokey Brown. He says he’s healthy. The Cards need him to be. Rookie Chad Williams may have an intriguing future, but this year, the Cardinals need the I-can-get-1,000-yards John Brown.

TE – Jermaine Gresham. So many have questioned his new large contract. But he’s been the best tight end the Cards have had since he showed up, and he does deliver some intangibles on the field this team can use.

TE – Troy Niklas. It’s a leap, yes, to assume Niklas will stay healthy. But every time, in the brief times, Niklas has been on the field, they like what he has brought. He’s not going to be a big pass-catcher. But he can block and he’ll play an important role – again, if he’s on the field.

LT – D.J. Humphries. He’s better suited for the left side. It’s tough for Jared Veldheer, but given ages and the future, this was all but predetermined when Humphries was drafted.

LG – Mike Iupati. Wasn’t as good in 2016 as he was in 2015, but I expect a rally. It’s important too – given his salary going forward, his age and the drafting of Dorian Johnson, the spotlight will be bright.

C – A.Q. Shipley. Showed the Cardinals he could start in this league. No reason to think he won’t again.

RG – Evan Boehm. I don’t see Johnson jumping into this job. Not yet. This is probably the second-most likely spot Keim could grab a vet, behind only No. 2 cornerback. But as it stands, Boehm is probably going to be out there.

RT – Jared Veldheer. Veldheer didn’t want to move from left to right tackle, but he did for the good of the team. Is there a transition to be made? Yes. Somehow, I don’t have much concern that Veldheer will make it work successfully.


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For what it’s worth in June, defensive edition

Posted by Darren Urban on June 22, 2017 – 11:33 am

What’s frightening – at least to someone that hasn’t been on vacation yet – is that the first practice of 2017 training camp is exactly one month away. This is where I’d like time to slow down a bit. But this is also the time, before I take a step away for a bit and with the Cardinals a couple weeks already gone after wrapping minicamp, that I take a too-early shot at what the starting lineups will be Sept. 10 in Detroit.

Today, we’ll do defense. Tomorrow, the offense (right here). Most of these are pretty obvious. There are no real titanic battles on the camp docket. These can change if Steve Keim chooses to bring in a vet, but right now, nothing is imminent.

DT – Josh Mauro. Quietly, Mauro a) started almost all last season and b) has become one of the favorites of this coaching staff. No gaudy stats, but DL coach Brentson Buckner said Mauro is always effective when he’s on the field.

NT – Corey Peters. Speaking of quietly, Peters too played well in 2016. Came back strong off his Achilles injury. Proving to be a solid 2015 free-agent signing, even if he missed a year.

DT – Frostee Rucker. Always a chance Robert Nkemdiche could slip in, but I’m guessing Rucker – now healthy when he wasn’t in 2016 – takes hold of this spot, at least in the beginning. There will be plenty of rotating across the defensive line at all three spots.

OLB – Chandler Jones. No more uncertainly. Jones has his long-term contract, and so you pencil him in.

ILB – Haason Reddick. This is supposed to be Deone Bucannon’s spot, and there is still a chance he’s ready by the opener. I’m going to guess it’ll take Buc a little longer than that to be ready, and so I think the rookie will be the anti-Nkemdiche/Humphries and be in the lineup from jump.

ILB – Karlos Dansby. Dansby is supposed to be a bridge guy to the Bucannon/Reddick ILB lineup. But he still sees himself as “legendary,” and to the benefit of the Cards, he’ll work as hard as he can to stay in the lineup.

OLB – Markus Golden. Had a breakout second season, leading the team in sacks. Will be an interesting year too, since he (like David Johnson) will be eligible for a contract extension after the season, with 2018 his final year under contract.

CB – Patrick Peterson. A star, and he’s earned that title. Sometimes he gives up something, but that happens when you cover the other team’s best every week. Most of the time, Peterson makes the play.

CB – Justin Bethel. One of the biggest questions. Wouldn’t be shocked at all if Bethel is not the starter against the Lions. If Keim were to sign a veteran on defense, this is the spot I would bet it’d be for. All that said, Bethel looked better than Brandon Williams in the offseason, he is healthy, and if the roster stays as is, Bethel makes the most sense in this role.

FS – Tyrann Mathieu. The Cardinals need full-on Honey Badger. That is all.

SS – Antoine Bethea. There are options at the other safety spot. I don’t see Budda Baker in this role, not yet. Tyvon Branch remains an option. But there is a reason the Cardinals signed Bethea, and I think they will want his experience and leadership on the field.


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Kurt Warner, deciding to retire, and 201 pounds

Posted by Darren Urban on June 21, 2017 – 11:16 am

Kurt Warner’s final season in the NFL was 2009, much to the chagrin of the Cardinals and their fans. Over the years, there have been some things left vague about Warner’s choice. There are still a segment of fans who are certain that nasty, nasty hit Warner absorbed in the season-ending playoff loss in New Orleans pushed Warner — especially since he said after that game he was going to take a little time to make his decision.

But the seeds were sown in 2008. Warner considered retiring after the Super Bowl, not because his contract was up but because of the toll the life was taking on his body. Not the hits, but the stress. As Warner prepares for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in early August (and after I got a chance to talk to him for that story to come), Warner noted that he played the Super Bowl at 201 pounds (he was listed that year at 218).

By mid-season in 2009, Warner knew it was likely going to be his last year playing football, long before the end of the year.

“About halfway through ’09, I sat back and had thought about it a lot from the previous year as I was going through the season and just came to the conclusion that it had become such a job,” Warner said. “There had become such a high expectation and such a level of what I had to do for the team … week in and week out, that it was starting to affect me big picture. In the Super Bowl of ’08, I weighed in at 201 pounds, which I hadn’t been since I was a junior in college, and the stress and expectation of that was wearing on me physically. Not from the standpoint of what I could do between the lines, but big-picture-wise.

“Halfway through 2009, I just realized, ‘This is it. I’m just not willing to sacrifice that much anymore.’ Not very many people knew. My wife knew. Larry (Fitzgerald) knew — as he tried to convince me over the next eight weeks or so (to stay.)”

(Said Fitzgerald on the subject of trying to talk Warner into playing in 2010, “Of course. I knew what was to come after that. Selfishly, absolutely. I wasn’t foolish. I know in this business if you don’t have a quarterback, you don’t have much chance to win.”)

As for getting blasted by Saints defensive lineman Bobby McCray, “A lot of people look at the hit against New Orleans and said, ‘Yep, that is what caused him to retire.’ It didn’t at all. It might’ve been the perfect exclamation point on it, but I had known.”

So when Warner torched the Packers in the playoffs in what he considers his best game ever — five TD passes, four incompletions — he figured it would be his last game at University of Phoenix Stadium. He waved goodbye with that in mind.


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Peterson, David Johnson are top 20

Posted by Darren Urban on June 19, 2017 – 6:58 pm

The NFL Network’s top 100 list is coming to a close, and the Cardinals don’t figure to have anyone in the top 10. But they did have a couple players land in the top 20 Monday night.

Patrick Peterson went 6-for-6 in his career on the list, landing at 19th overall — right around where he has been the past couple of seasons. His ranks, going backwards in time, previously were No. 18, No. 19, No. 22, No. 33 and No. 55. During the season, Peterson had three interceptions, also went 6-for-6 in Pro Bowls during his career, and was again considered one of the best (if not the best) “traveling” cover guys in the league — in other words, a cornerback who follows around the opposition’s top receiver.

Then there was David Johnson, who in his second year, debuted on the top 100 list at No. 12. Like Peterson, a high ranking was a no-brainer for Johnson. Here’s a guy who likely would have been in the MVP talk if the Cardinals hadn’t slumped record-wise, and who would have been the first NFL player to have 100 scrimmage yards in every game of a season had he not suffered his scary (but ultimately, not devastating) knee injury early in the season finale. Johnson had 1,279 rushing yards, 80 catches for 879 yards and 20 total touchdowns. He led the NFL with 2,118 yards from scrimmage.

Linebacker Chandler Jones was No. 85 on the list, while wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was No. 45 as the only other two Cardinals to appear.


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Across from Patrick Peterson, a revolving door

Posted by Darren Urban on June 16, 2017 – 10:05 am

It’s the dead time between the end of minicamp and training camp, and again, there is the question: Who will be the cornerback starting across from Patrick Peterson? As it stands, Justin Bethel is the leader in the clubhouse, although he was that at this time last year (despite a foot injury) and he never started a game. As we talked about in the latest Cardinals Underground podcast, Bethel has looked better than he had. Health helps. But until the pads come on and the games count, it’s impossible to know for sure.

But it got me to thinking about the position since Patrick Peterson arrived. Peterson, the fifth overall pick in 2011, had a learning curve himself when he was drafted. He wasn’t a great cornerback as a rookie, but he was solid. And he started all 16 games. His cohort opposite? It has not been the same player two years in a row, and that’s a trend that will continue this season regardless of whether it is Bethel or a veteran who might sign before camp or whoever.

2011 — Richard Marshall 9 starts/A.J. Jefferson 7 starts: Jefferson actually was the starter coming out of camp, but he faded quickly and was replaced by the veteran Marshall. Marshall was OK. He was probably better known as one of the better punt return blockers that got Peterson loose for his spectacular rookie year as a return man.

2012 — William Gay 15/Greg Toler 1: Gay signed as a free agent but was up and down. He immediately went back to Pittsburgh, where he was better suited and still starts. Then again, 2012 wasn’t good for any of the Cardinals. Remember 4-0 that year?

2013 — Jerraud Powers 16: One of the first free agents signed after Steve Keim and Bruce Arians took over. Powers was steady, although he was probably better suited in the slot. The Cardinals had Tyrann Mathieu plans there, so Powers dutifully worked the outside, and he was fine.

2014 — Antonio Cromartie 16: Cro was the ultimate Keim blue light special. Came in, was mostly good (although there were a few high-profile hiccups, especially later in the season when the team struggled) and made the Pro Bowl. But he wasn’t going to re-sign for cheap again, the Jets made him a big offer, and Cromartie started showing his age in New York.

2015 — Powers 13/Justin Bethel 3: Powers was disappointed but a team player when the Cards upgraded to Cromartie, and stepped back in the breech as the only two-time Peterson companion (Bethel’s starts came during Powers’ injuries.) Again, he was solid for a team that made the NFC Championship. But the Cardinals wanted to upgrade, there was belief Bethel could take a step forward, and Powers was allowed to leave in free agency when the sides couldn’t match up on the money it would take to keep him around.

2016 — Marcus Cooper 13/Brandon Williams 3: We know the story by now. Bethel was the pick, but was hurt. Mike Jenkins was the likely starter before blowing out his knee in preseason. The veteran Cooper was the late trade before the season, and got the spot after the rookie Williams showed he was clearly not ready after being the early choice. Cooper left as a free agent, getting a surprisingly nice deal in Chicago. And here we are again.


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