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Defensive opportunity, Friday before the Colts

Posted by Darren Urban on September 15, 2017 – 4:21 pm

So it was a week about the Cardinals’ offense and the struggles last week and the injuries they already have endured just one game into the season. This is a defense that is healthy – save for the nearing-a-return-but-not-yet Deone Bucannon – and about to face a Colts’ offense Sunday that scored only nine points in Los Angeles last week, has a quarterback crisis and a decimated offensive line.

It’s the kind of offense a defense can get after pretty hard, especially one like the Cardinals, which may be asked to shoulder a bigger load going forward.

“You’d be crazy if you thought like that,” linebacker Markus Golden said. “This is the NFL, man. That’s the real part about it. If you think like that, I don’t even want you on my team. That’s how I feel about it.

“It ain’t like we’re a super-team. We’re like them. We lost last week and we’re trying to get back on the winning side.”

The Cardinals get it. They get the position they are in, what they face after injuries. Anyone concerned about a trap game – which to me can’t be, no matter how rough the Colts looked, because of where the Cards are – shouldn’t be.

“We understand it’s the NFL,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “The Rams’ defense is tough on everybody. We don’t really look at that. If you look at it that way you’ll probably lose some respect for those guys (on the Colts).”

This was always going to be a big game. Bruce Arians back in Indy and all that. It was supposed to be Andrew Luck vs. Mathieu and Patrick Peterson, a clash of two playoff hopefuls. The Colts are anything but, thanks in large part to Luck’s injury. The Cards want to make sure their hopes aren’t dashed so soon themselves.

— Players like Golden and Mathieu were all saying Jacoby Brissett would be the QB they face, which was what had been reported by multiple outlets. Colts coach Chuck Pagano would not name a starter Friday, however, and Bruce Arians took his friend at his word.

“We’ll see who steps into that huddle,” Arians said. “Chuck hasn’t said s*** yet.”

— Given all the offensive shuffling, it’s almost lost that Robert Nkemdiche will be getting a chance to play. He’ll have a chance to go against undrafted rookie Deyshawn Bond, who is playing center with Ryan Kelly injured. If Nkemdiche can show a little of what he showed in the preseason, that’d be a nice start. Given everything he’s been through, he needs a good game in this situation.

— Not much more to say about Palmer this week. The injuries around him do not help. This is why you sign an Alex Boone, to fill in for Iupati. You hope John Wetzel plays better. Offensive line play across the league is not been great. The Cards are not alone. But they have to make it a little better for Palmer, and Palmer has to be a lot better.

— The blocking also has to be better for the running game, which didn’t produce much even before Johnson got hurt. Andre Ellington/Kerwynn Williams was the 2014 running tandem once Jonathan Dwyer was released, so it’s not unfamiliar. The Cards leaned on the defense that season a lot (Palmer only played six games because of injuries) but you need some production on the ground. Where Chris Johnson fits in — especially after Arians said Elijhaa Penny will have an offensive role — is anyone’s guess.

— We will see how much of a role Chad Williams actually has on offense with Smoke out. Still, the pass catching will probably come down more to Fitz, Jaron Brown and J.J. Nelson, with Andre Ellington out of the backfield. Nelson actually has eight touchdowns in his last 10 games (Thanks for the stat, Whiz!) He can’t be dropping bombs like he did last week, but Nelson has gotten better with Carson Palmer and as a deep threat, the Cards need him. Badly.

— Speaking of potential pass catchers, curious to see if Ifeanyi Momah can be a factor. Every time he plays in the preseason, he seems to have a few receptions. Now, with Jermaine Gresham missing practice all week, he’s got a chance to be involved. We talk “Next Man Up,” but the next men up understand more people fret about those injured than are comforted by who is stepping in.

“It almost can be a chip on the shoulder sometimes, but honestly, I just try to do the best I can every day,” Momah said. “It was a good experience for me, first game of the preseason, starters didn’t play and I got to play into the second half. From that game, I was able to build off that, someone who can fill in.”

Ring of Honor member Roy Green is being inducted into the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame tonight.

— Speaking of former Cardinals, this came out last week, but if you have not seen it, it is a well-produced mini-documentary into the free-agent decision of Calais Campbell when he left the Cards in the spring. It’s worth a watch.

— I’ll leave you with this: Defensive coordinator James Bettcher grew up in a small town (Lakeville) in Indiana, and told a story this week about the first time he went to an NFL game when he was a kid.

“I remember Pops took me to my first Colts game, one of my best friends and his dad,” Bettcher said. “It was in the RCA Dome and like I said, from a small town of extremely hardworking people and to be able to go to a game like that was something special. Then you see the size of the stadium and you think, ‘Wow, how could I ever be down on the sideline?’

“To think now how fortunate I am to be a coach in the National Football League. It means something to me to work with the players I work with here and how fortunate I am to be a Cardinal. Maybe that’s what I get out of (this trip). To reflect back.”

See you in Indy.


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(Football) life without David Johnson

Posted by Darren Urban on September 11, 2017 – 3:25 pm

So the news wasn’t good, with David Johnson (likely) sidelined for many weeks and many games because of a dislocated wrist. Bottom line, this isn’t replacing a guy who by default ended up at the top of the running-back-by-committee depth chart. This is arguably the best running back in the league. He comes out of the lineup, it makes a difference.

The Cardinals have to find a way to run the ball going forward. That will be some combination of Andre Ellington and Kerwynn Williams, I’m thinking. Reports that the Cards are signing D.J. Foster from the Patriots practice squad makes sense; Foster could in theory become a punt returner. The Patriots tried him a little bit there in preseason (Foster did not return kicks or punts at Arizona State.) If Williams is playing a lot of running back, I’m not sure he’ll stay with such a big return role. J.J. Nelson is an option back there, or Brittan Golden. (The punt return job can’t help but not be settled, right? It’s one thing or another.) Elijhaa Penny would be an option as a big back, although Sunday, after Johnson got hurt, Williams was still used inside on a couple of up-the-gut short-yardage plays.

The offense could look a lot more like the 2013/2014 model, before Johnson was drafted and before Chris Johnson’s resurgent 2015 season. The Cardinals didn’t run as effectively as they wanted to those seasons, but they made it work and they won games. Now, it’s about making whatever you can work, and hope Johnson can return late in the season for a playoff push the Cards still hope they can develop.


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Lions aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on September 10, 2017 – 4:01 pm

The Lions tried. They really did. They botched a bunch of special teams plays early, committed bad penalties, made mistakes. Yet the Cardinals would not take the game. When the Cards were finally ready to take the game – that third-quarter sequence in which they went on a 94-yard touchdown drive to take a 17-9 lead, and then forced a punt – the football gods spit on them.

Not only did David Johnson fumble – the second time in the game, a bugaboo he had when he got into the league but one he had seemed to have overcome – but he got hurt on the play. I mean, the guy had just gotten whacked on his previous touch, an impressive seam catch on the TD drive that got a first down at the Detroit 3. Johnson didn’t get up right away on that, but apparently he had the wind knocked out of him.

It wasn’t the wind but his wrist the second time. Fingers are crossed everywhere, from the Cards’ organization to fantasy football players across the globe. Bruce Arians didn’t indicate one way or another on Johnson’s health – or D.J. Humphries’ knee, for that matter – but in the context of Sunday, it was a crushing turn of events.

That wasn’t the reason the Cardinals lost, although it would’ve been interesting to see them try and follow up that long TD drive. The defense couldn’t hold up by the end. There was some pressure, but not enough on Matthew Stafford on key plays, and missed sacks a couple times that were costly.

— Carson Palmer took all the blame afterward. He knows he wasn’t good for too much of the game. It wasn’t so much the interceptions that were bothersome (I mean, you can’t have interceptions, but …) as much as a couple of out routes, about 12 or 15 yards down the field. Both plays I’m thinking of should’ve been easy completions. They were short. Bruce Arians lamented Palmer’s accuracy and said Palmer’s arm was fine. They’re going to need him to fix that, quickly.

— Palmer is going to be the quarterback. So anyone asking/complaining that there isn’t a switch is just yelling to nowhere.

— If Humphries is down for some games – Ian Rapoport was tweeting it’s a sprained knee that could be a few weeks – I wouldn’t be shocked if the Cards flip Jared Veldheer back to the left side and let John Wetzel play the right side. But we’ll see how that plays out.

— Arians noted it, and so did many players, but in the NFL, if you are handed red-zone possessions and don’t get touchdowns, that’s usually going to turn out poorly.

— One plus for the Cardinals was the speed of rookie linebacker Haason Reddick. He had eight tackles, and showed his range sideline-to-sideline. I also thought John Brown played pretty well too, and Andre Ellington flashed in his brief appearance. New safety Antoine Bethea looked good too, especially in the first half.

— You don’t want to see Justin Bethel, after a solid game, be on the wrong side of those two late TD passes. But that last catch by Kenny Golladay was amazing, the way he laid out.

— Long flight back to Arizona coming. It’ll be longer because of how the game went.


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Breaking down the first 53-man roster

Posted by Darren Urban on September 2, 2017 – 5:57 pm

The Cardinals have a roster. I expect it to change by Sunday night, but as usual, we will see. There is a possibility they look at signing veteran punter Andy Lee, who was cut Saturday by the Panthers and who has a history as a holder for Phil Dawson. They could grab an outside linebacker, because they only kept three thus far. The likelihood is that T.J. Logan will go on IR too, so that’ll quickly create an opening.

In the meantime, some thoughts on the roster as is:

— The numbers breakdown:
QB 3
RB 5
WR 6
TE 3
OL 9
DL 7
OLB 3
ILB 5
CB 4
S 5
ST 3

— Other than Logan on the roster (I did not know a player could not be put on IR immediately and be able to return later in the season, so that was a new one for me) this was basically what was expected at running back. Chris Johnson was let go as Andre Ellington seemed to find his rookie vibe. Ellington can catch the ball better and ultimately, I think that was a big thing.

— The receiving corps ended up being the six most likely candidates, but someone will end up on the practice squad. My guess would be Carlton Agudosi, but Bruce Arians likes how Chris Hubert gets open too.

— The offensive line may have delivered the most surprises, but then again, Arians was happy with his starters plus John Wetzel and the rest was up in the air. I thought Cole Toner would be the swing guy but instead, the Cards kept C Daniel Munyer (who they liked, obviously) and T Ulrick John, as well as rookie T Will Holden. G Dorian Johnson, the fourth-round pick and the only choice not to make the roster, really struggled in camp and preseason and it cost him a chance to stick.

— The Cards only have three outside linebackers. I’d guess Cap Capi will be a practice-squad candidate, and they very well could find an outside linebacker somewhere as a cut from another team. Philip Wheeler was the guy who beat out Scooby Wright as a fifth inside linebacker. Wright could be practice squad. He does well on special teams but his athletic limits hurt Wright on defense.

— Matt Wile is the punter. Will that change?

— Rudy Ford makes it as safety over Harlan Miller. Ford has a lot of speed, and that shows up when he plays center field on defense and on special teams.


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Keim: A few spots left and CJ2K’s place

Posted by Darren Urban on August 28, 2017 – 8:13 am

Steve Keim figures there are four or five spots still left to be determined on the 53-man roster, with one preseason game left and the starters not playing Thursday. It seems that one would be at running back. It makes sense the Cardinals would only keep four running backs. David Johnson is in. Kerwynn Williams, as a back and return man, is in. (T.J. Logan will be going on injured reserve.) If you keep four, that would leave two spots for Chris Johnson, Andre Ellington and Elijhaa Penny. Penny, who is the only one of the three who plays special teams, seems to be trending as a guy who gets a spot. So does a final spot for to Johnson — who fumbled twice Saturday before coming back with a couple of good runs — or Ellington?

Keim, during an appearance on the “Doug and Wolf” show on Arizona Sports 98.7 Monday, kept it vague when talking about Johnson’s situation. “I’m not going to critique Chris on the radio,” Keim said. “The one thing I’ll say is that he’s a pro’s pro, he gets it, and it’s not just his performance in one preseason game that is going to make a difference. It’s the body of work throughout camp that Coach and I will look at and we’ll determine the best 53 and more importantly, who is really going to be active on game day?”

(Johnson, for his part, feels like after an offseason off, he is finally getting his game legs under him.)

— The positions still most in the air, in Keim’s eyes: Punter, a fourth outside linebacker, inside linebacker and offensive line depth. Cap Capi flashed as he tries to make a push for a final OLB spot, but the Cardinals may still be looking for a fourth guy who may not be on the roster. Jarvis Jones was supposed to be that guy but he’s been hurt virtually all of camp.

— Keim did say the third OLB spot deservedly goes to Kareem Martin. “There’s no player who has worked harder this offseason than Kareem,” Keim said, calling him the most improved of anyone on the roster.

— Keim was happy to see John Brown play well. “We all know the player John Brown can be when he is healthy,” Keim said. “He is a dynamic player who can create mismatches, which is something we desperately need from him.” Keim added that Brown is a “very important part of this puzzle,” singling out Smoke and Tyrann Mathieu as the guys who change field position.

— Keim admitted he wasn’t feeling great about Brandon Williams early in camp but that the second-year cornerback has completely changed his mind. “I feel like we have four solid corners, which is a sigh of relief,” Keim said.

— The wide receiver group responded to Bruce Arians tough words. Keim said that has shown not only on the field but “they got out of the training room,” underscoring that Arians’ frustration a couple weeks ago may have been a little bit less about play and more about availability.


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Falcons aftermath, and Stanton’s hard count

Posted by Darren Urban on August 26, 2017 – 9:38 pm

That Drew Stanton hard count. Those of us who were at training camp practice every day saw it … well, just about every day. There it was, with the Cardinals 21 yards from the end zone, and he barked and the Falcons jumped. He had done it earlier, but guard John Wetzel flinched too. (Bruce Arians let him know: “I already got Wetzel – he don’t have much ass left.”)

But this time, just the Falcons moved and it gave Stanton a free play, and he lobbed a 21-yarder to Smokey Brown that Brown somehow came down with over-the-shoulder.

“We went back to (the hard count) and they kept jumping,” Stanton said.

Those two TD passes to Brown, along with a defense that made Matt Ryan look miserable (preseason, yes, but an 8.1 passer rating is not what the Falcons wanted to see in the third game of the preseason) made Saturday pretty good for the Cardinals. Not great. But good. Much better than this time last year. The starters and main guys are done now. They won’t play Thursday in Denver. Anyone playing this coming game is either not going to be on the team or is likely fighting (a few locks will play – they have to – but the last preseason game is what it is, especially with 90-man rosters).

That opening trip to Detroit, when things count for real, is only two weeks away.

— The running backs situation is interesting. Arians would not say Chris Johnson has locked up a roster spot, notable after Johnson fumbled twice. Elijhaa Penny also lost a fumble. Kerwynn Williams is making this team as a return man, but beyond he and David Johnson, it feels like Penny, Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington are battling for two spots.

— DT Olsen Pierre is in concussion protocol. Hopefully he’s OK. If he’s down for any time, depending on what happens with Robert Nkemdiche’s calf strain, things could get dicey on the defensive line.

— Stanton quietly had a nice night, completing 4-of-6 passes for 53 yards and his score.

— Linebacker Cap Capi probably isn’t making this team (although Jarvis Jones’ lingering back issue might create a need for a fourth OLB; that guy could still come from final cuts or a trade too). But Capi was impressive Saturday, enough to earn props from Arians. He had seven tackles, 1½ sacks and a tackle for loss.

— The playmakers on defense made plays. Markus Golden gets a strip sack. Tyrann Mathieu a pick on a tipped pass by Karlos Dansby. Patrick Peterson should’ve had a pick, but he lost it as he was going to the ground. “He’s getting fined for his drop,” Arians deadpanned.

— Matt Wile seemed to have a much better night than Richie Leone punting, although the numbers weren’t all that different. Right now, I’d guess Wile has the lead for a roster spot.

Huge comeback night for Brown. He spiked the ball on the pylon after his first score. “It was an emotional release to show people that I’m back and feeling good.” Brown said. Brown has to stay healthy. That’s a given. But the Cardinals need him out there and productive. His impact is obvious. We saw it Saturday.

— Arians acknowledged he considered not playing running back David Johnson Saturday until changing his mind, in large part because Johnson was part of the early script. Johnson made his lone catch of the preseason on the game’s second play, resulting in a first down. He came out after that.


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Hall of Fame game aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on August 3, 2017 – 11:31 pm

It’s late here in Canton — past 2 a.m. — so this is going to be an efficient post, in part because it’s the first of five preseason games and yeah, the preseason. That doesn’t mean things of importance can’t happen. You wish the head coach wasn’t saying “fingers crossed” about an injury to the rookie who was already showing he could be that dynamic return man you had been seeking.

But it was hard not to notice quarterback Blaine Gabbert as the top story of the evening. With all the caveats of preseason/the Cowboys only using three defensive starters, Gabbert looked very good in completing 11-of-14 passes for 185 yards. What does this mean? It means that Gabbert succeeded when, frankly, he should have. Beyond that, we’ll still see.

The last time a new Cardinals QB played so well in the preseason opener? (It just happened to be the last time a Cardinal was going into the Hall of Fame, Aeneas Williams.) Logan Thomas completed 11-of-12 passes against the Texans, for 113 yards and a TD. We all know how that turned out. Now, Gabbert is not Thomas. As much as Gabbert has struggled, his NFL career was still light years better. But it’s a reminder to hold off on grand pronouncements.

— Speaking of the Hall of Fame, Kurt Warner had his party Thursday night, and both Larry Fitzgerald and Adrian Wilson made it over there to celebrate post-game.

— Logan really looked good as a return man. For a guy who hadn’t returned punts in college, he impressed.

— Tight ends Troy Niklas and Ifeanyi Momah also made some plays. Momah in the passing game, grabbing three receptions. If he is able to play special teams like he did last year before getting hurt, Momah has a place on this roster.

— Andre Ellington scored on a three-yard run that showed some grit, fighting his way between the tackles. If you recall, Bruce Arians said Ellington had to run tougher. The TD run was a good sign.

— Rookie safety Budda Baker made some plays. Arians praised Haason Reddick too.

— Robert Nkemdiche took a step forward again, playing much of the time in the first half. He busted up a couple of plays. He says being healthy, he feels more like himself. Again, he’s going in the right direction.

— The backups who played the offensive line for Gabbert mostly held up (from left tackle, Wetzel, Kaleb Johnson, Toner, Bergstrom, John.) The second-unit pass rushers who started didn’t generate enough pressure.

— The Cardinals return to practice Saturday (it’s closed to the public). Meanwhile, I’ll be here in Canton, covering Warner’s induction. Look for my big Warner-years-in-Arizona story tomorrow (today, here in the Eastern time zone).

UPDATE: Some are wondering why I didn’t bring up the missed field goals, and it’s simple. Phil Dawson didn’t kick. The punters, Richie Leone and Matt Wile, kicked, each missed a field goal, but the punter will only be kicking when it counts if Dawson goes down in a game. That’s unlikely to happen.

 


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Behind Johnson, the look of running back room

Posted by Darren Urban on May 19, 2017 – 9:45 am

When you have arguably the best running back in the league — certainly in the top two or three — who can both rush and catch the ball with any back out there, the notion of who is behind him can get lost. But then it was reported this week, before LeGarrette Blount signed with the Eagles, that the Cardinals showed some interest. It raises the question, with the team moving on from veteran Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington giving wide receiver a shot, just how that depth chart will fill out behind David Johnson.

As it stands right now, Kerwynn Williams figures to be the top running option behind Johnson. Williams has earned that nod over the years; he has produced on the ground when he has gotten the chance. T.J. Logan, the rookie fifth-round pick, is a virtual lock to make the roster. His kickoff return skills alone help, and from what little I have seen in the OTAs and rookie minicamp, the speed on display after catch a short pass is a very real threat.

Beyond that? Ellington could still officially end up as a running back, although it feels like in many ways his and Logan’s skillsets are similar. Big Elijhaa Penny seems to be the wild card. Is he the big back the Cards could use between the tackles if needed? Do the Cardinals need to add someone at some point? I’ve never gotten the sense the Cardinals felt a strong need to add another vet back — it was a little surprising to hear Blount caught their attention — but that’s part of what OTAs and minicamp will be for, to sort that need out. It would never be surprising to have the Cardinals decide to make a late signing either. That’s what happened with Chris Johnson, and with GM Steve Keim, you never rule out that possibility.


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A draft of passion, speed — but no QB

Posted by Darren Urban on April 29, 2017 – 3:52 pm

The draft is over. So Bruce Arians summed it up plainly. “Passion and speed.”

The Cardinals also went for versatility, guys that could play in a couple of spots. And it was also about what they didn’t get. With the much-anticipated temptation of taking a quarterback, “we talked about a couple of guys, but they were all gone,” Arians said. “As far as a temptation, no.” (A QB is already in hand, though. See below.)

— It didn’t look like the Cardinals had drafted a cornerback either, until they did. Sixth-round pick Johnathan “Rudy” Ford was a safety as he wrapped up at Auburn, but he began his career as a cornerback and the Cardinals will use him at cornerback. He’s been training there already, with former Cardinals cornerback (and two-time offseason coaching intern) Rod Hood.

— Ford got his nickname because when he was little, he wouldn’t give up. And his uncle nicknamed him that, yes, after the movie.

— Special teams was not forgotten. Clearly, the Cardinals see big special teams play to come from multiple picks: Budda Baker, Haason Reddick, Rudy Ford, T.J. Logan.

— Arians described Logan as more Andre Ellington than David Johnson. If Logan clicks in the backfield, it will certainly free up Ellington to be more of a receiver, which Arians already said would be Ellington’s role.

— The liver condition of fourth-round guard Dorian Johnson is not a problem. Not to the Cardinals. “Some people think me and Coach have liver issues but we’re just fine,” GM Steve Keim deadpanned.

“Terrible joke, but he’s fine,” Keim said. “It’s not been an issue in the past.”

“(Dorian) knows how to manage it,” Arians said with a grin. “I’m still learning mine.”

— The two offensive linemen (Johnson and Will Holden) can play multiple positions. Keim loves that. They are also considered very smart. “Not to get too detailed, but the less time we have with these players, the less time we can develop them, and the less we can get them to understand what we are trying to get across from a schematical standpoint,” Keim said. “It’s important to draft smart players, it’s important to draft passionate players, and it’s important to draft players with positional flexibility.”

— The Cardinals will start to work on their undrafted rookie list now. The official list likely won’t be out until Monday, although I am sure some names will trickle out before then. There will be a quarterback on that list. The Cardinals have 14 spots open on the offseason 90-man roster (although that includes one for Daryl Washington, whose actual spot on the roster figures to be determined sooner rather than later.)

(UPDATE: And there’s your UDFA QB. Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight tweeted out he’s coming to the Cardinals.)

Keim said the plan is to sign 15 to 20 undrafted rookies. A team isn’t going to land all their targets usually, but if there are more than 14, there may be some roster moves early next week to make room for newbies.


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Kerwynn Williams, and juggling the roster

Posted by Darren Urban on October 11, 2016 – 10:09 am

The life of a player on the fringe of the roster is not easy. Kerwynn Williams knows this. The running back was re-signed by the Cardinals Tuesday. He had been signed a week ago after Chris Johnson went on IR, and then when the Cardinals needed an extra tight end because Darren Fells was injured — the Cards promoted practice squad tight end Hakeem Valles — Williams was the one they cut, just a few hours before kickoff against the 49ers. Now that Carson Palmer is just about healthy, the Cardinals found a roster spot for Williams again, letting go of quarterback Zac Dysert.

Williams lives a tough reality. He’s not a special teamer (he can return kickoffs, if needed) so he’s not a guy that makes sense to be active unless you need him to run the ball. He’s no longer practice-squad eligible. But he’s proven many times he can run the ball, and run it well. If he had been PS-eligible, he very well would have made it over Elijhaa Penny.

But with Johnson down (at least for now; there is a chance CJ2K will return this season) Williams makes a lot of sense as an extra runner. Andre Ellington will be David Johnson’s official backup, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Williams finds a way to get some carries over the next few weeks.

That is, of course, assuming the Cardinals don’t need to find a roster spot again.

l-17837


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