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Cardinals — on the basketball court?

Posted by Darren Urban on February 19, 2017 – 1:59 pm

Late in the season, the Cardinals’ offensive linemen installed one of those mini-basketball hoops above one of their lockers. Every once in a while, after practice, somebody (or somebodies) would take a few shots. There’s no question that over the years, plenty of players have come through that space thinking they were quite the basketball players.

Anquan Boldin could play. Kurt Warner could really play (and still does, hosting invite-only pickup games at his house in Scottsdale). Josh McCown could really play.

With the NBA all-star game today, it’s a good time to discuss who might make a solid unit for the hardwood. I’ve had the chance to talk to a handful of players about their basketball backgrounds. (I have not talked to everyone, and I am sure I will have inevitably missed some serious baller here. I ask, preemptively, for forgiveness.)

You’ve got to start with Darren Fells. The guy played pro basketball, after all. Larry Fitzgerald still likes to trash-talk Fells, and at one point there was a challenge of a one-on-one game, but I’m guessing Fitz wouldn’t like how that would turn out. Still, I’ve seen Fitz enough times in charity games that he probably could be in the starting lineup.

Our point guard would be Tyrann Mathieu, who might not quite be the same player as he was prior to a pair of ACL injuries, although I’m guessing he’d say different. (That video doesn’t exactly show the Badger against the best defense.) Calais Campbell, who at 6-foot-8 did some damage inside in high school, can be our center. And you don’t want to forget David Johnson (15.7 points, 7.9 rebounds a game as a senior in high school, and second-team all-state), who noted on Twitter he’s got a 41.5-inch vertical.

Off the bench? Kareem Martin, who played football at North Carolina, had a chance to walk on to the Tar Heels basketball team and maybe be the next Julius Peppers. Martin decided to concentrate on football, but you’ve got to have some game to be considered for UNC hoops. Some Earl Watford (Earl had some good stories about being the muscle on the court for his high school team), and a little A.Q. Shipley (A.Q., while shooting on that mini-hoop, assured me that back in the day, he was quite nimble on the court). Close it out with Tony Jefferson, who plays pretend basketball in the locker room with the trash cans more than any player ever and loves his Suns. (Yes, Jefferson was cut as a sophomore in high school, but noted that he had 16 points and five steals in his final lower-level high school appearance, so there’s that.)

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Thursday before the Seahawks

Posted by Darren Urban on December 22, 2016 – 4:26 pm

The Cardinals actually won the first game played (that counted) at what is now CenturyLink Field.

It was 2002, and Thomas Jones had his best game as a Card and even though Jake Plummer couldn’t do much, the Cards knocked off the Seahawks, 24-13, the second week of the regular season. The building was simply a new building back then, certainly not the intimidating factor it has grown to be (although, as with most places, the stadium is intimidating when the team playing there is good. If the team playing there isn’t as good, not so much.)

The Cards with Carson Palmer have been good there. Two Palmer starts, two Cardinals wins. When the Cardinals lost in 2014, Palmer was injured and Drew Stanton was behind center. Palmer will be there Saturday, but the team around him is beat up and broken down. It’s not how the Cardinals wanted this matchup to be, especially with the Seahawks in mostly better shape than the first time these teams met this season. But the NFC West has been determined, the Cards are out of the playoffs and all there is for the Cardinals to spoil Seattle’s hopes for that No. 2 seed. Which isn’t nothing, but this game was supposed to be about so much more.

— Well, offensive line of John Wetzel, Mike Iupati, A.Q. Shipley, Taylor Boggs and Earl Watford, welcome to Seattle. They held up OK against the Saints, but, offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, this is a different animal, no?

“This is a very different animal,” Goodwin said. “It’s from outer space. It’s not necessarily an animal, it’s an alien.”

Goodwin said he hasn’t really said much to the group along those lines, however.

“To be honest, I leave them alone,” Goodwin said. “You don’t want to do too much talking. The film speaks for itself. The place we are going this weekend, the crowd noise … we know what we are up against.”

— That’s why the Cardinals need to be able to run the ball — it’s nice having David Johnson for that, although Johnson had to grind out his yardage in the first meeting, the infamous 6-6 tie. There can’t be penalties or sacks. Get at least a little something on each down. “This is not the place you want to go, this is not the team you want to see, in third-and-long,” Goodwin said.

— I don’t know how far Robert Nkemdiche has come yet. But I think it’s been proven that Bruce Arians wouldn’t give him praise unless something has gotten better. Doubtful we’ll see much the last two games, although he will play. It’s about 2017 for the first-round pick.

— Injuries always play a factor, but not having money linebacker Deone Bucannon against the mobile Russell Wilson tends to give one pause. Bucannon’s ability to run is unmatched by the guys filling in for him, and Wilson is clearly running better than how he did in the first meeting when he was hobbled with injuries.

— The secondary is also hurting. Arians acknowledged cornerback Marcus Cooper probably wouldn’t be able to play Saturday — if he doesn’t play, rookie Brandon Williams (who missed practice Thursday with a tight back) would get the start. Justin Bethel, who did say his foot is finally feeling better after the stress fracture that has hampered him for two seasons, remains behind Williams on the depth chart.

— There doesn’t seem to be any indication Tyrann Mathieu won’t play — the Cards need the bodies right now — but Mathieu playing and Mathieu being Honey Badger are two separate things. Arians on Mathieu’s play against the Saints: “He gave it everything he had. It ain’t Ty.” UPDATE: I guess I was wrong. Mathieu went to IR on Friday.

— Defensive coordinator James Bettcher, on whether the defense took last weekend’s meltdown against the Saints personally. “Absolutely we took it personally,” Bettcher said. “There wasn’t a guy on our defensive staff and there wasn’t a guy  in the locker room that wasn’t extremely disappointed in our performance. It wasn’t acceptable, it wasn’t up to our standard, that’s me included. It wasn’t up to my standard. We all own that.”

— Michael Floyd finally met with the New England media and talked about his DUI.

— Larry Fitzgerald said he has talked to David Johnson a lot about how to handle his burgeoning stardom off the field, like Emmitt Smith did with Fitz when Fitz first came into the league. For instance, Fitzgerald told Johnson to be fully dressed and “buttoned-up” when he talks after the game in front of the camera — you never know when a decision-maker at a company might see you and want you to be a spokesman.

“He doesn’t need a lot of advice,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s like a Christmas toy under the tree that doesn’t need any assembly. He’s out-of-the-box-ready.”

— Johnson, by the way, would tie Barry Sanders’ record for consecutive games with 100 scrimmage yards in 15 straight games in a season if he can reach that milestone Saturday.

— Bring on Seattle. Bring on 39 degrees and chilly rain. Bring on what always promises to be an interesting road trip.

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Saints — and playoff-hope — aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on December 18, 2016 – 8:22 pm

OK, so the Cardinals already knew their playoff chances were basically done after the loss in Miami, but they were officially killed off Sunday. Drew Brees hadn’t done anything for two games, and then he erupted to tear apart the Cards. All the while, it was the last home game of the year and one of those games where many players understood what that meant — Calais Campbell had already been talking about it, and Tony Jefferson tweeted about it pre-game — as contracts are ending and there is so much up in the air for 2017.

Carson Palmer is under contract for 2017. He was asked about next year, and he said he expects to be playing. Larry Fitzgerald is under contract for 2017. He said he will play the final two games “as hard as I can” and then see how the offseason plays out. If Fitz is gonna stick around, he’s going to want to know he’s got a chance to make the postseason and win.

Nobody coming into this season — even if you expected the Cardinals to take a step back from 13-3 — thought the Cardinals would be a pedestrian 4-3-1 at University of Phoenix Stadium. But here they were again, in a one-score game late, unable to win it like they had so many times the past two seasons at home. That’s what stuck with Bruce Arians, and that’s one of the (many) things to undo the 2016 season.

— It wasn’t his best game statistically but it was a very good game for David Johnson, tying the franchise record for touchdowns in a season and playing more regular wide receiver than normal because of a thin receiving corps. The Saints were also attuned to Johnson as a receiver, bracketing him often on passing plays — which is new for him.

“I was joking with one of their DBs and he was telling me when they were scouting us, (they said) don’t think of me as a running back, think of me as a receiver,” Johnson said. “That was cool to hear.”

— But Johnson now needs 200 receiving yards the final two games to reach 1,000, against two good defenses. So that will be tough.

— Palmer was good, and that was with an inability to hook up with John Brown on one wide-open deep pass (Brown did haul in a 30-yard TD bomb later) and with J.J. Nelson dropping what would have been a 56-yard TD bomb. It helped that the offensive line — from left tackle to right, Wetzel, Iupati, Shipley, Boggs and Watford — held up perhaps better than expected.

“I was happy with the way we played up front,” Shipley said. “There were obviously a couple things we would like back. But for a guy like Boggs who really hasn’t played and going against a top 10 pick (Nick Fairley), I thought he did admirable. There was one play early but other than that, he did a pretty good job. And Earl being in a position he hasn’t played in a long time, and Wetz, I don’t know what number combination of offensive line this is (for us) … I was happy with how the guys responded.”

— Another rough night for special teams. Chandler Catanzaro missed a long field goal and another extra point, although the latter ended up not mattering. Justin Bethel’s offsides on the field goal was painful though, as was the fact Bethel was offsides on three different kicks — the field goal and a pair of extra points, yards added on the kickoffs.

— Linebacker Sio Moore, on the questionable blow-to-Brees’-head penalty that killed the chance for the Cardinals to hold the Saints late in a seven-point game: “I didn’t even know the flag was on me until late,” Moore said quietly. “It was unfortunate timing for a call like that. I can’t argue with the refs. I’ve just got to figure what I’ve got to do so that situation doesn’t come up on my bill.”

— If you missed it, team president Michael Bidwill before the game addressed — strongly — the Michael Floyd situation.

— Campbell, in his ninth NFL season, scored on a 53-yard fumble return and that was the first time Campbell had been in the end zone since his senior year in high school when he had a four-touchdown game as a tight end. That was 2003.

— Tim Hightower is famous around these parts for scoring the game-winning touchdown in the NFC Championship game back in the 2008 season. He was traded away before the 2011 season, suffered a terrible knee injury and didn’t play in an NFL game from 2012-14, but has resurrected his career in New Orleans. Sunday, he scored two touchdowns in the same end zone where he beat the Eagles in 2008.

“I’m just thankful,” Hightower said. “This process has been one that has tested me in every way. … Just thinking of the last (Saints) loss here a year ago (in the 2015 opener). I wasn’t even on the roster. I was released the day before the game. It kind of had everything come back full circle. It was special.”

— Hightower was in the same Cardinals draft class as Campbell. It wasn’t surprising to see the two friends swap jerseys after the game. Campbell said he knew Hightower was behind him on his touchdown run, as Hightower tried to Beebe Campbell from behind. “I felt it,” Campbell said. “I pulled the ball up when I felt him coming for it. I told him, ‘If you had knocked the ball from my hands, we wouldn’t have been friends any longer.’ ”

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Top questions for Cardinals – answered?

Posted by Darren Urban on September 8, 2016 – 10:06 am

Before training camp got underway, I posted 10 of the top questions facing the Cardinals — Part I and Part II — as they began their season. Now that the games that count are here, were those questions answered? Let’s take a brief look:

— Can Carson Palmer do it again? Clearly this isn’t something that could be answered yet. The preseason had some rough moments. But Palmer is unflinching and so is his coach and his teammates. The confidence is there that the quarterback will be just fine.

— Who is the starting center? It’s A.Q. Shipley, and it was never really even close. Rookie Evan Boehm is getting better, but he doesn’t look like he’s close to usurping Shipley. And the Cardinals never looked on the street for another option. It’s possible that could change, but Shipley is entrenched for now.

— Will D.J. Humphries become the right tackle? Yep. Again, never really was a question once it was all said and done. There was no real competition, and to Humphries’ credit, he improved as camp went on. In my opinion, while he won’t be perfect, Humphries should be fine.

— How much will David Johnson carry the offense? Again, we’ll only know once the games start, but it’s hard to think he won’t be the anchor to how this all goes down. Looked good in camp and the preseason.

— How important was it to keep every single skill player? This matters when there was worry about the offense. The idea is that they know each other well. So hopefully, even though Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown played little in the preseason, they know what to do. And the other skill vets like Jaron Brown showed why it’s good to have their knowledge too.

— Who will be the cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson? Brandon Williams, almost by default, because of the injuries to Justin Bethel and Mike Jenkins. The rookie will get tested early and often. He had a strong start to camp and then slowed a bit, and his work is going to be under the microscope.

— What will be the impact of Chandler Jones? More TBD, but you have to love how he looked during camp.

— How is the health of the Honey Badger? Healthy enough that he’ll start and is expected to be full go against the Patriots. We’ll see how Tyrann Mathieu looks compared to all-pro-pre-ACL-tear Badger of 2015.

— Can Robert Nkemdiche play a big role right away? Maybe not a big role, not after missing a chunk of camp with an ankle sprain. But he’ll definitely play a role.

— What is Larry Fitzgerald’s future? You never know what he’ll do after the season, but at least the Cardinals made sure, if he plays in 2017, it’ll be in Arizona.

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If Veldheer goes down, a Humphries switch

Posted by Darren Urban on August 24, 2016 – 10:05 am

One of the important parts of the end-of-preseason roster choices will be how the Cardinals choose to divvy up their offensive line spots. As of now we have the five starters — from left tackle across, it’ll be Jared Veldheer, Mike Iupati, A.Q. Shipley, Evan Mathis and D.J. Humphries. Beyond that, you figure they keep fourth-round center Evan Boehm and Swiss Army knife lineman Earl Watford, who is still recovering from a knee injury. Does rookie guard Cole Toner stick? Guard Antoine McClain? Tackle John Wetzel? Do they add a guy?

Watford started two games at right tackle last year and is a strong possibility to play there if Humphries goes down. For now, coach Bruce Arians made it a little more clear how they would handle the backup tackle situation on the left. If Veldheer got hurt, Arians said, the move would likely be to switch Humphries — who spent his college days as a left tackle — back over to the left, and then fill in the right.

Arians also had a good line about what the Cardinals ask their offensive tackles to do.

“Block the best players on the other team,” Arians said. “That’s pretty much it. those defensive ends get paid a bunch of money. They get paid a million dollars a sack, you get paid half-a-million for 59 good blocks.”

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Williams, Boehm and rookie impact

Posted by Darren Urban on July 30, 2016 – 9:23 am

We’re only one practice into training camp, nowhere close to being able to know what rookie will walk in and help a team. But already, it feels like things are shifting with a few draftees. Robert Nkemdiche is the first, a guy who is sitting for now with a bum ankle. You figure the defensive lineman will be back sooner rather than later, and frankly, even if he missed a week or two, it probably wouldn’t make a big difference once we got to the regular season.

But you look at the next two picks: CB Brandon Williams and C Evan Boehm. When the picks were made, given the Cardinals’ circumstances at both spots (which both had and have uncertainty), the safe guess would have been that Williams would come along slow and Boehm would have the best chance to start.

Instead, early in camp, the situations have reversed. With Justin Bethel sidelined, Williams is running with the first team, and actually looked pretty good in his first practice, continuing the arc he finished up in the offseason work. Boehm, meanwhile, is behind A.Q. Shipley now, as coach Bruce Arians has repeatedly noted the steep learning curve Boehm must climb before he is ready to play.

There’s a long way to go. The two could switch again before the season. Bethel could come back and fight off the Williams challenge for that starting job. But for now it’s an interesting twist from where we were in May.

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Nkemdiche to play fullback and other Arians

Posted by Darren Urban on July 29, 2016 – 12:42 pm

Bruce Arians didn’t have a lot of news speaking today since the Cardinals have yet to hold a practice — “No one got hurt in the walkthrough,” Arians deadpanned — but there were still some tidbits. Among them, A.Q. Shipley’s days as a fullback are probably done, since he’s likely going to end up the starting center. So who would be the battering ram in the backfield instead of Shipley for those few times it’s needed? How about rookie defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche?

“He’s done it before and he’s been damn good at it,” Arians said.

This is true.

— Speaking of Shipley, Arians said “in all fairness” Shipley didn’t lose the starting center job last year, saying “I gave it to Lyle” Sendlein.

— Andre Ellington will be among the players looked at on kickoff return. It’s another chance to get Ellington, an explosive player, his hands on the ball. Arians said it wasn’t about getting one of the running backs a spot on special teams, but if Ellington doesn’t return kicks, it’d be hard to have three backs on game day and none playing any special teams. Chris Johnson isn’t going to, and starter David Johnson likely wouldn’t either.

— Carson Palmer was asked about the possibility of retiring if the Cardinals won the Super Bowl. Thursday, Arians said if the Cards won, he’d likely want to try and coach the Cards to another one instead of retiring. Palmer said he’d probably feel the same, and noted that when he was younger, watching John Elway win back-to-back Super Bowls left a deep impression on him.

— Along those lines, Arians was asked when he arrived in Arizona how long he thought his coaching window was, given his age. Arians said he never really thought about it. “That’s up to God,” Arians said. “The way I treat myself, not long.”


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For what it’s worth in June, offensive edition

Posted by Darren Urban on June 24, 2016 – 2:13 pm

As we maneuver through the dead of the offseason (and I finally get some time off), it’s a chance to survey the landscape of the Cardinals and make predictions about the season opening starters a couple of months from now – like I did with the defense yesterday.

Today, before I disappear for a bit, here is the offensive version, which, given the return of all the skill players, isn’t exactly an exercise in rocket science:

QB – Carson Palmer. As long as he’s healthy and productive, the Cardinals will remain a contender.

RB – David Johnson. The Cards hope that vets Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington stay healthy and contribute to Bruce Arians’ multi-pronged offense. But make no mistake, David Johnson is the running back in this offense.

WR – Larry Fitzgerald. He’s coming of a renaissance season only to be stepping into the will-he-or-won’t-he-retire last year of his contract. Still, he remains the soul of this offense.

WR – Michael Floyd. Also going into a contract year. Had a slightly slow start, but his dominance for a long stretch mid-to-late in the year showed how much of an impact he can really make. Yet another of the weapons that will make this team so hard to defend.

WR—Smokey Brown. Arians said Brown slumped late in the year, so the goal now is for Brown to carry through his talents for 16 games. Avoiding a nagging hamstring injury like the one that bothered him for a chunk of last season would be a good starting point.

TE – Darren Fells. Jermaine Gresham will get plenty of playing time, but Fells quietly had a very solid season last year, and Palmer said he’s shed 20 pounds and looks even better through the spring.

RT – D.J. Humphries. One of the few offensive question marks. All signs point to the 2015 first-round pick starting this season after learning a hard lesson as an inactive player for all 16 games as a rookie. If the Cardinals sign a veteran right tackle as camp opens, all bets are off.

RG – Evan Mathis. The Cardinals signed the Super Bowl champ to a one-year contract hoping he can not only solidify the line but also serve as a mentor – or at least give veteran help — to Humphries.

C – A.Q. Shipley. Eventually, the Cardinals want fourth-round pick Evan Boehm to win this job. But can the rookie learn enough to beat out Shipley by September? I’m guessing it takes a little longer than that.

LG – Mike Iupati. Comes to Cardinals, makes the Pro Bowl, the running game piles up almost 2,000 yards. Probably not a coincidence.

LT – Jared Veldheer. The offensive line overhaul with Steve Keim began with the Veldheer signing back in 2014. The Cards wanted a left tackle anchor. They got one.

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Center may be college non-center

Posted by Darren Urban on April 19, 2016 – 4:51 pm

Lyle Sendlein and Ted Larsen are gone. And while A.Q. Shipley remains and the Cardinals have signed a couple of other street free agents in Taylor Boggs and Valerian Ume-Ezeoke, it’s pretty clear the Cardinals are on course to draft a center at some point. Maybe it’s the first round, a guy like Alabama’s Ryan Kelly (who has been a favorite for mock drafters to scribble next to the Cardinals at 29th overall.) But it won’t be a surprise, even though the Cards don’t have a second-round pick, if they wait. After listening to both Steve Keim and Bruce Arians Tuesday, it shouldn’t even be a surprise if one comes later — and isn’t even technically a center. Not yet.

“In this draft, there are several opportunities to draft centers in all rounds,” Keim said. “Some of those guys are projections. There are some guys in the second, third, fourth rounds, who are going to be guys who played left tackle or they played guard at the collegiate level, who we worked out at center or they played center previously in their career that we think has the skill set. There are going to be opportunities to address that position if we feel necessary.”

Arians noted a couple of very good NFL centers like Jeff Hartings of the Steelers and Tim Grunhard of the Chiefs (Grunhard played guard in college, Hartings started his NFL career at guard before moving to center) that made the move. “When you say a college center, there might be three college centers, but there are 15 potential centers,” Arians said.

Options obviously open up a lot of possibilities for that first pick. Waiting on a center makes it easier to take a cornerback. Or a defensive lineman. Whatever Keim might want.

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Keim: “Fingers crossed” for Mathieu UPDATE

Posted by Darren Urban on December 21, 2015 – 8:13 am

Cardinals GM Steve Keim didn’t go to bed after the team landed around 4:30 a.m. from Philadelphia after their win Sunday night. And when he made his appearance on the “Doug and Wolf” Show on Arizona Sports 98.7 a little more than three hours later, there was no definitive answer yet on the status of safety Tyrann Mathieu and his right knee injury. (Mathieu hurt his left knee in 2013.)

Keim said Mathieu was undergoing an MRI Monday morning to determine the extent of the problem.

“We’ll keep our fingers crossed,” Keim said. “He’s such a valuable piece to this defense, this organization.”

UPDATE: Bruce Arians announced Monday Mathieu’s season is over after he tore his ACL.

Some other Keim thoughts:

— On the NFC West title, with a chance to clinch a first-round bye by beating the Packers in a week, I “just like the fact we control our own destiny.”

“It was nice to see a complete football game from our club” against the Eagles, Keim added.

— He said he was happy with the play of the offensive line. Keim thought it was one of the best games for right tackle Bobby Massie, he liked the aggressiveness of guard Mike Iupati, and he thought A.Q. Shipley played well in place of injured center Lyle Sendlein.

— As for the injured finger of QB Carson Palmer and the knee of RB David Johnson, Keim said both should be fine.

— Keim praised the play of newcomer D.J. Swearinger at safety. He also liked the games of ILB Deone Bucannon and DT Josh Mauro

“That’s what makes a team, when you have different guys step up each week,” he said.

— His biggest concern going forward? There was a mention of consistent pass rush, but the main thing comes as no surprise with the Mathieu situation hanging over the team’s collective head. “The ability to stay healthy through the process,” Keim said.

 


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