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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.

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Keim going through the cuts process

Posted by Darren Urban on August 29, 2016 – 8:21 am

It’s a fluid day today thanks to the first round of cuts and a short week, meaning the Cardinals go from a 90-man team playing in Houston Sunday to a 75-man team practicing (or walking through at least) Monday afternoon. The Cardinals will make their cuts likely before practice, and GM Steve Keim said on the “Doug and Wolf” show on Arizona Sports 98.7 that the process is going on right now. That includes meeting with the medical staff at some point to find out where the Cards stand there — if cornerback Mike Jenkins’ knee injury is a season-ender, for instance, he’d probably go on IR and there’s one roster spot — and then make the other cuts from there.

All that news is to come on azcardinals.com. Bruce Arians will speak at 12:15 p.m., although in the past cuts have come out after he speaks.

Other Keim thoughts after the Texans game:

— Keim’s “one concern” is the fact the Cardinals have not played well collectively, particularly on offense. That will hopefully be rectified when players like Larry Fitzgerald return to the lineup and they all start playing a lot more together. Keim did single out a handful of offensive players he has liked so far. Running back Andre Ellington has impressed, and Keim said he likes the progress of rookie offensive linemen Evan Boehm and Cole Toner.

— Keim also said he thought the pass protection was good overall and that right tackle D.J. Humphries played his best game, which could be seen in the excellent run performance the Cards had. Humphries “brings physicality to the line.”

— The quarterbacks overall haven’t played well. “I don’t think that’s hard to see,” Keim acknowledged.

— Rookie DT Robert Nkemdiche didn’t get a lot of pressures on passing downs but Keim liked how disruptive he was in the run game as a good first step.

— CB Justin Bethel was rusty, Keim agreed after Arians’ assessment. Keim thought rookie CB Brandon Williams had a “solid” game, getting better mentally and with his eyes, despite getting beat a couple of times.


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Ellington takes his shot at punt returns

Posted by Darren Urban on August 23, 2016 – 10:13 am

Andre Ellington is now listed as the top kickoff and punt returner on the depth chart. The kickoff part isn’t that surprising. The punt return part is, since a) Ellington has never really done it and b) it wasn’t really a consideration when camp started. But Ellington, who finally got a chance to return one in a game in San Diego, is going to have the opportunity.

We’ll see how comfortable Ellington can get back there. This possibility has been building since the day Chris Johnson re-signed. When the three top running backs were healthy last season, David Johnson was returning kickoffs and there was a reason to have all three active on game days. Now that David Johnson is going to be the main back, he won’t be returning kickoffs — so to have all three active, someone has to play special teams. That’s not Chris Johnson. So you try and see what Ellington can do as the dual return man. (You don’t really want Patrick Peterson returning punts anymore either.)

Watching him in practice, Ellington looks very much like a work in progress. But Bruce Arians is right — if Ellington does get his hands on a punt, he’s the kind of player that fits such a return perfectly, getting the ball in space on what essentially is an extended stretch running play, in which Ellington can use his burst to blow up the field.

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Raiders (preseason) aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on August 13, 2016 – 12:29 am

The score ended up ugly, but this is the preseason, where scores matter little. (I won’t say they don’t matter at all, because sometimes, they do matter if, say, the third game is lopsided.) What the Cards got out of Friday night was safety for their players, especially their starters (always always always the most important thing), decent play from said starters, and a decent outing from a couple of key guys.

Those would be Brandon Williams and D.J. Humphries, and while neither were spectacular, they held up fine. Humphries didn’t fare well against Khalil Mack, but in reality, many do not anyway. He admitted he messed up against Mack, but believes it was mostly from him being overly hyped up to play. Time will tell, but he did play better as time went on (and admittedly, after Mack went out.) Humphries hasn’t answered all the questions yet. And there is probably still a need to consider bringing in a veteran backup tackle. But I still think Humphries will be OK.

At this point, same goes for Williams. He competed again against the Raiders. He thought he was going to be tested and he most certainly was. He gave up a TD. But he battled and the kid is going to learn. We still have almost a month before the Cards play for real. If Justin Bethel gets back soon, he still has a chance to take back the starting job. But Williams will play and he will get better, and even if he is the third cornerback, the Cards will be better for it.

— We barely saw the starters. I couldn’t tell you really what Chandler Jones had. Carson Palmer had a near-pick early with pressure in his face, but he led a scoring drive. The Cardinals have to get the ball in the end zone after getting a first down inside the 10, but that should come.

— David Johnson looked like he was in midseason form already. Midseason form during a really good season.

— Andre Ellington showed again why the Cards have liked him so much. Health makes a big difference.

— If the Cards can get that out of tight end Troy Niklas, he’ll be the guy they expected with a second-round pick. Again, health matters.

— Drew Stanton was high on some throws, and hopefully that was just first-game issues. I’m sure Arians was hoping to see more from Matt Barkley. I would expect Stanton and then Palmer to eat up most of the QB playing time the next two games, so we’ll see how many more opportunities Barkley gets in game situations.

— The Cards are off Saturday, and get back to practice Sunday morning. Remember, no open practice at University of Phoenix Stadium until after the Chargers game.

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Thoughts after the Red-White practice

Posted by Darren Urban on August 6, 2016 – 4:56 pm

Here we are after the Red-White practice, the annual first real break point of training camp. From here on out — save for the bye week — the Cardinals will have a football game every week. That starts this coming Friday with the preseason opener at home against Oakland.

But first, a few thoughts and analysis after the Red-White work, which featured a lot more live play than I was expecting. It was good to see real football again. I know Andre Ellington agrees.

— Among the “stars” Saturday was wide receiver Jaron Brown, who made several nice catches — including a 25-yard TD reception from Larry Fitzgerald on the WR option pass. Brown is one of those guys who could easily be with another team making more plays than he does in Arizona. He simply has too many talented guys ahead of him.

— Ellington also looked very good as a receiver. The Cards’ passing game looked pretty sharp all around.

— Calais Campbell and Chandler Jones caused havoc up front as the practice went on. Jones continues to show he will be a great pass rusher.

— Not a great sign considering both Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians have said short-yardage improvement is a priority, but during “live” play in the middle of the field Chris Johnson was stuffed for a loss on a fourth-and-1 run.

— And in the goal line “live” drill, the first-string offense failed to score in three tries. There was an incomplete play-action pass, and then David Johnson was swamped under on two other runs. Linebacker Kevin Minter got Johnson the first time (Minter had a smile about it, as you can see in the picture), while veteran DT Red Bryant led the charge to blow up the final attempt.

— The second-unit offense was more successful in goal line, scoring twice on runs by Chris Johnson and Elijhaa Penny.

— Despite all the hitting/tackling, no one seemed to get hurt, although guard Mike Iupati did go down on a play when it looked like someone rolled up on his legs. Iupati was able to get back in after one play though, so crisis averted.

— Crowd was estimated at 25,000.

— The Cards are off Sunday, and resume practice Monday.

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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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Mathieu and the Cards’ contract cliff

Posted by Darren Urban on May 16, 2016 – 10:25 am

Tyrann Mathieu is going to get a contract extension. When, exactly, remains an unknown, although Ian Rapoport reported Monday the team and Mathieu are “deep in negotiations” toward a deal. I’ve long felt this was a matter of when and not if with the all-pro safety. For a multitude of reasons for both sides, it behooves both to get a new contract done.

But from the Cardinals’ end, a big reason to want to lock up Mathieu is because of the laundry list of players who, as of right now, are free agents after this upcoming season. It’s a subject we’ve talked about before, and the reality is not everyone will be with the Cardinals after this year. Still, if you have hope to having some guys around, you’d think the Cards would want to pare down the work facing them before this year ends. Here is the list — and it doesn’t include every single FA-to-be — of guys who are contract-less after 2016, as it stands right now:

— S Tyrann Mathieu
— WR Larry Fitzgerald
— OLB Chandler Jones
— DT Calais Campbell
— WR Michael Floyd
— G Evan Mathis
— DT Frostee Rucker
— RB Chris Johnson
— RB Andre Ellington
— S Tony Jefferson
— TE Jermaine Gresham
— OLB Alex Okafor
— ILB Kevin Minter
— WR Jaron Brown
— S D.J. Swearinger
— RB Stepfan Taylor

That isn’t the entire list, but those are the bigger names. Obviously, each are taken individually to an extent. Some guys the team will just move on from in the normal course of roster change in a salary-capped world. But big picture, it’s a puzzle GM Steve Keim and his department are working on as this season approaches.

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Watching those #Cardsdraft gems

Posted by Darren Urban on March 28, 2016 – 9:42 am

The draft is near. It’s one month away today, actually, and as part of the countdown azcardinals.com will have six videos to mark the time to this year’s selections. The #CardsDraft Gems will feature one player who was found after the first two rounds who has shown he can perform past the limits some of the draft analysts gave him when he was coming out of college.

The series starts with running back Andre Ellington — a 2013 sixth-round pick — today. Two weeks out from the draft (April 14) will be 2015 fourth-round defensive lineman Rodney Gunter. One week out from the draft (April 21) will be 2015 fifth-round wide receiver J.J. Nelson. Three days before the draft (April 25) it will be third-round wide receiver John “Smokey” Brown. Two days out (April 26), it will be third-round safety Tyrann Mathieu, and the day before (April 27) it will be third-round running back David Johnson.

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