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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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Healthy-looking pool jump for David Johnson

Posted by Darren Urban on February 9, 2017 – 8:03 am

Once the initial scare was over, there was never really any fear about David Johnson’s knee injury suffered in the final game of the season. He had an MCL sprain. He’d be fine in about a month or two. (OK, had he suffered the exact same injury in Week 4, sending a season sideways, that’d be different. But timing is everything.)

Well, here we are, about six weeks later, and as expected, Johnson looks fine. He’s been coming to the team facility for rehab most days, and now tweeted out a video of himself leaping out of a pool. There is no doubt Johnson is well on track to be ready whenever offseason work begins. Just like he thought.


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Cards on top 101 list, but no Peterson

Posted by Darren Urban on February 8, 2017 – 1:37 pm

Is Patrick Peterson among the top 101 players from this past season?

One list — from Pro Football Focus — does not have the Cardinals cornerback on it. PFF ranks players based on grades they gave out for that season’s work. There are five Cardinals from 2016 on the list. Running back David Johnson (the guy who PFF called the best receiver in the NFL) is No. 23. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell is No. 24. Edge rusher Chandler Jones is No. 62. Safety Tony Jefferson is No. 84, and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is No. 89.

So no Peterson.

It’s not a huge surprise. PFF even talked about Peterson’s absence from an earlier all-pro team. The other five were deserving. Johnson was high on everyone’s list this season, and PFF had multiple times praised the seasons of Campbell and Jefferson. Jones proved to be a valuable acquisition and Fitz was, well, Fitz. In Peterson’s case, it was in part because of a good season by other cornerbacks (and, as my cohort Kyle Odegard points out, PFF grading doesn’t seem to take into account a lack of targets because teams throw away from a certain DB, or for the quality of receiver being covered.)

From PFF: “Peterson has been good this year, but he has allowed as many touchdowns (three) as he has interceptions, and allowed 60.6 percent of the passes thrown his way to be caught, a career high. When targeted he allowed a passer rating of 80.7, which wasn’t bad, but ranks 30th in the league and not in the same ballpark as players like Aqib Talib, who led the NFL at 47.0.”

Peterson had a response. “So does that mean these ‘experts’ will be releasing a Top 100 ‘Not Targeted’ List? Nope.” Peterson wrote in a tweet.

The other thing I see from the five Cards here — three are unrestricted free agents. All those guys are talented, but the contract year is real too.

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Reassessing receivers after Fitz news

Posted by Darren Urban on February 2, 2017 – 9:50 am

So Larry Fitzgerald is coming back, a boon to the Cardinals — at least for 2017. After moving on from Michael Floyd (which was probable as 2016 moved on and Floyd heading into free agency, regardless of his off-field issues), the Cards needed a Fitz anchor at wide receiver. But for the long-term, does it change a lot? The Cardinals still need to consider a big receiver in the draft, I’d think, a guy who can help fill the Fitz void when that comes sooner rather than later (and the way this all has gone, it feels like Fitzgerald is going to want to hang it up after 2017.)

Again, the biggest question after Fitzgerald when it comes to wide receiver is the ability for Smokey Brown to return to form. If Brown is able to play next season like he did for most of 2015 (Brown did battle hamstring issues that year and it might have been the sickle cell issue), the Cardinals should be fine. J.J. Nelson was emerging the last part of the season. Again, there probably needs to be a long-term “big” receiver plan post-Fitz, but it’s not crucial. The return of Fitz does ease the pressure — and eliminates a potential hole — that could have forced something different at the 13th overall pick. Then again, if Clemson’s Mike Williams is still on the board …

(Besides, good passing games come down to the quarterback often. If Carson Palmer retires along with Fitz, the Cards’ QB situation will be priority 1, 2 and 3. And probably 4 and 5.)

No, you don’t forget running back David Johnson either. He’ll play a huge role in the passing game again, I am sure. But again, if Brown and Jaron Brown (torn ACL) can come back healthy, along with Fitz and Nelson, the Cardinals’ receiving corps should be fine for this season.

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David Johnson as “best receiver” in the NFL

Posted by Darren Urban on January 25, 2017 – 10:11 am

Award season was built for discussion and “controversy.” (You need the quote marks because, really, debating who should be MVP or all-pro doesn’t rank among the big questions our world faces today.) So Pro Football Focus came out with their year-end awards, and Cardinals running back David Johnson was honored — as the best receiver in the NFL.

There isn’t a whole lot of detail. It notes that Johnson had more catches for more yards than any other running back. That’s fine, although there are obviously a ton of wide receivers that eclipsed his numbers. PFF notes that on their scale (there are no specifics listed on their grading system), Johnson’s receiving grade of 92.6 is higher than any player in the NFL. Coming in behind Johnson was Atlanta’s Julio Jones and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans.

What’s interesting about the grades is that Johnson, multiple times this season, pointed out how he had screwed up routes he had run. At the end of the year, in fact, Johnson said that had he not messed up so often (especially earlier in the year) he would have easily reached the 1,000-yard mark in receiving and gotten into the coveted 1,000-1,000 club.

The Cardinals and PFF have been down this road before. Last season, PFF called Tyrann Mathieu — technically listed as a safety — the best cornerback in the NFL after all his slot work. PFF did have Mathieu playing the majority of his snaps in the slot last season and not safety. In Johnson’s case, he was a running back all the way through, save for a limited amount of times he might have split out wide as a true wideout. To be fair, PFF gave the award to the best receiver, not the best wide receiver. A tight end, in theory, could have been the pick. And there is no question Johnson was fantastic as a pass catcher (he averaged more yards per catch than Larry Fitzgerald, actually.) But this will certainly be a debated concept.

UPDATE: PFF just posted a full article on their reasoning. They make the point Johnson is doing things as a receiver at a much higher level than other running backs. They point out that sometimes, he’s doing things like a receiver or tight end would. Here is a crucial passage: “The point isn’t to compare Johnson to Mike Evans and Julio Jones route-for-route or claim that he is doing the things they are doing better, but rather to compare receiving within their respective roles.”

I get where that would make Johnson a great receiver out of the backfield, the best in the league. And incredibly effective. I don’t know how that makes him the best receiver in the NFL.

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Fitzgerald won’t play in Pro Bowl

Posted by Darren Urban on January 23, 2017 – 2:49 pm

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald pulled out of the Pro Bowl Monday due to injury, and is being replaced by Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, according to Seahawks.com. Fitz was banged up by the end of the season — which he noted with the bumps and bruises he said he wanted to recover from before making a decision in terms of playing in 2017. It was the 10th time Fitzgerald was named to the Pro Bowl.

Fitzgerald was one of three Cardinals’ Pro Bowlers. The team is now down to one — cornerback Patrick Peterson. Running back David Johnson’s chance to play was derailed when he sprained his MCL in the season finale against the Rams.

Fitzgerald was just named a finalist for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award. No Pro Bowl means the next time he could face the media — and questions about his future — would be at the NFL Honors show on Super Bowl eve, if he happens to win the Payton award.

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All-pro Cardinals, retirements, and other stuff

Posted by Darren Urban on January 6, 2017 – 2:36 pm

It’s only fitting David Johnson was named AP all-pro this season, and while I understand why Ezekiel Elliott earned the running back nod on the team, I personally felt like Johnson earned it. It’s good they changed the rules to allow for a “flex” player (instead of a fullback) because it would have been wrong for Johnson not to be a first-team this year. But I can’t really argue with the other decisions. I’ve heard from a couple of people about Patrick Peterson, but the players that earned the first- and second-team slots — Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, Janoris Jenkins, Casey Hayward, Malcom Butler — all had really good years. It was good to see Calais Campbell with a second-team nod. He was good all season but really came on in the second half of the year. It’s too bad the whole team couldn’t have that consistency in their playoff push.

It was interesting to me as I looked back over the years to see what Cardinals made first-team AP all-pro that Larry Fitzgerald earned that honor only once — fittingly, in 2008, when he not only was great in the regular season but had the best playoff run any receiver has ever (and while I know there are arguments to be made for a couple of other guys, having witnessed what Fitz did in those four games, you’ll never convince me otherwise that anyone ever did it better.)

— A quick thought on the ongoing Fitz-Carson Palmer retirement speculation. Nothing has changed for me. I have long believed and still believe Palmer will play in 2017. I think if, for whatever reason, Palmer did leave, that would seal Fitzgerald’s decision. But like I said, I believe Palmer is going to play. I still think Fitz hasn’t made up his mind. Won’t surprise me whatever decision he makes (so I guess I’m saying I think he’s 50-50.) I know he took the ball for his last catch/touchdown, but he has kept significant footballs before — and don’t forget, this one did net him an NFL receptions-title — and besides, it can’t hurt to take it just in case. If he comes back, fine. I don’t think the football gives any hints, other than he is considering retirement, which we knew already.

— Don’t forget to take a listen to our Cardinals Underground wrapup season podcast.

— In case you missed it (and maybe you might’ve, since this is the first year I didn’t put it in the blog), here was my annual roster breakdown, along with who is a free agent-to-be.

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Rams, and the season, aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on January 1, 2017 – 9:15 pm

That sound you heard from the direction of California Sunday night was the Cardinals exhaling. No, David Johnson hasn’t had his MRI yet, but there is optimism that the knee injury he suffered Sunday will cost him only that record of 100 yards from scrimmage in every game and nothing further. If his ligaments are intact – and Bruce Arians seemed to think they were – then he will recover in plenty of time for training camp. And at this point, that’s all that matters.

So in that regard, Sunday’s 44-6 beatdown of the Rams isn’t like the beatdown of the Eagles last season, which won a division but had an ugly hangover because of the Tyrann Mathieu ACL tear. Nobody wants any of that.

Johnson wasn’t moping or looking like disaster had struck after the game, so take that for what it’s worth.

You also take for what it’s worth the pounding of the Rams. Jared Goff is nowhere near ready to play quarterback, and certainly not behind that line he had today or with the receivers he has. Still, the Cardinals held the Rams to a crazy 2.1-yards per play today – that’s nothing – and had a sack party in the backfield.

Momentum doesn’t carry over from one season to the next. I firmly believe that (just as the NFC title loss didn’t carry over.) But confidence can. And this team has a lot of confidence going into the offseason.

Of course, there are a lot of things that need to be figured out in the offseason. But that’s to talk about for the next few months.

— The Cardinals will pick 13th overall in the draft.

— Arians confirmed earlier reports that offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin is set to have three head coaching interviews in the coming days. ESPN reported those teams as the Bills, Rams and Jaguars. Goodwin joked the other day of getting a couple of calls from CFL teams, but it was always expected that Goodwin would be getting interviews after interviewing with the Buccaneers last offseason.

Obviously, the Rooney Rule makes an impact with Goodwin, an African-American. But you can’t get a job without interviewing, and at some point, someone is going to decide Goodwin is the right man for the job.

— By the way, a major point in Goodwin’s favor – the amount of points the offense generated the last three games with his deep-in-the-depth-chart offensive line. Props to those players, but Goody can coach up an offensive line.

— Carson Palmer was wearing a glove on his left hand after cutting it on Christmas day and getting four stiches. Palmer joked he was saving orphans from a burning building. Whatever the reason, he said it didn’t bother him.

— Safety D.J. Swearinger again made a strong argument for the Cardinals wanting him to stay. A couple of big hits, a couple of nice tackles, a sack, an interception that was lost on a questionable Kevin Minter roughing-the-passer penalty.

— Chandler Catanzaro with a nice finish: 3-for-3 on field goals, 5-for-5 on extra points.

— Justin Bethel told me recently his foot – which has been injured basically since last year and never fully healed after he hurt it again in the offseason and needed surgery – is finally feeling better. So to see him play his best two games as a cornerback the last two weeks, including a 68-yard pick-6, is gratifying. Especially after Arians called him out after the Miami game.

— We’ll finish on this note: The Cardinals finished the season with a plus-56 point-differential. That’s something that usually translates into a playoff berth, not 7-8-1. In the NFC, only Dallas, Atlanta and Seattle are better. (AFC South winner Houston was minus-49!) But that’s how this season went. We move on to 2017.

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Friday before the Rams – and season’s end

Posted by Darren Urban on December 30, 2016 – 3:27 pm

One of the friends and family of Frostee Rucker that will be at the game Sunday in Los Angeles will be his first football coach. Rucker was 6 at the time. He later ended up playing at USC, and so will be back at the Los Angeles Coliseum playing for the first time since college.

“It’s almost like full circle in a sense,” Rucker said.

The season will come to an end as well. Can’t say it’s full circle, since at the beginning expectations were so high and here we are, on the final day of practice and it’s not even January. That certainly wasn’t the plan back in August. The mood was good this week, I’m sure in part because of the win in Seattle. They’d like to finish off with the revenge win against the Rams. “You build your team to win in the division,” coach Bruce Arians said, and, despite all the ups and downs, if the Cardinals win Sunday, they will have gone 4-1-1 in the NFC West.

That’s a record that Arians admitted, had he known before the season, he’d have assumed they would have won the division.

— Here’s another stat (oh, those sometimes misleading stats) that also would’ve made you think they could’ve (would’ve?) won the division: There are only three teams in the NFL ranked in the top 10 in offense and defense. The Cardinals (eighth in offense, third in defense) are one of them. The others? Playoff-bound New England and Pittsburgh.

— The Cardinals have not lost an NFC West road game since 2014. They’ve won five straight heading into this one.

— It’s amazing to think the Cardinals will be starting their fifth different right guard Sunday. It’s gone Evan Mathis to Earl Watford to John Wetzel to Earl Watford to Taylor Boggs and now to Evan Boehm.

— For those wondering, I had a chance to ask Carson Palmer about the late slant pass to J.J. Nelson. It indeed was an audible.

— The crazy stat of the week: Running back David Johnson is averaging 10.7 yards per catch (77 receptions). Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is averaging 9.6 yards per catch (102 receptions). Yes, Fitz has more catches, but you’d never think a running back would be ahead of a receiver.

— Speaking of Fitzgerald, Arians said he would not lobby the veteran wide receiver to return in 2017. “It’s up to Larry,” Arians said of Fitzgerald playing another year. “I’ve got my fingers crossed. Hopefully he will come back but that’s strictly up to him.”

— Arians does have other business with Fitz, though. On Chandler Catanzaro’s game-winning field goal last week, Fitz celebrated with the coach a bit too hard. The jumping bear hug hurt Arians’ right shoulder, and he admitted Friday it still hurts. What did the MRI show? “Haven’t taken one yet,” Arians said with a chuckle. “I don’t even want to know.”

There could still be a price to pay, though.

“If I can’t play golf this year (in the offseason), I’ll be driving one of those real nice cars,” Arians added with a grin.

— The in-flux offensive line, whatever its shortcomings, has allowed only two sacks total the last two games.

“Proud of them,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “That’s what I told them Wednesday. Just proud of them.”

— Palmer doesn’t like sitting out Wednesday practice but he never really fought it either. The Cardinals put a lot of time and effort into the sports science of workload, hits and repetitions — led by assistant strength coach Anthony Piroli — to judge such things. Palmer’s Wednesday work is part of that science.

“There’s reason for it,” Palmer said. “There’s data behind it. It’s amazing the stuff that they keep track of and the information that you get back from that. It makes sense. I see why they do it, and like I said, they’re paid professionals. That’s their job and that’s their role, and you don’t have a choice but to listen.”

— This Rod Tidwell “Football Life” trailer is pretty good, NFL Network. I’m going to stick with my Tidwell effort, however.

— Congrats to Johnson for being named MVP by the Arizona chapter of the PWFA. Same for Kevin Minter for taking the “Good Guy” award for his dealing with the media. Truth be told, there are a bunch of guys that could win the Good Guy award — Calais Campbell, Patrick Peterson, Tony Jefferson, D.J. Humphries, Tyrann Mathieu and A.Q. Shipley immediately come to mind, and that’s not a total list — but the truth is, we have a very good locker room when it comes to this part of the job.

— Another season (almost) done. That’s 17 in the books for me. Where does the time go?

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Gurley, David Johnson, and the right situation

Posted by Darren Urban on December 28, 2016 – 12:54 pm

Here we have the tale of two very different running backs.

Not necessarily in the way they play, although the styles of Todd Gurley and David Johnson — friends from their time in the 2015 draft — aren’t exactly parallel. No, this is about the seasons each is having, both on teams that have not been as good as expected. For Gurley, that has meant disaster. Johnson, of course, has been electric — arguably the best in the NFL.

A couple of weeks ago, Gurley noted after a Rams’ loss that the team “looked like a middle school offense.” He’s averaged just 3.2 yards a carry this season, and unless he torches the Cards’ defense for at least 155 yards, he won’t reach 1,000 for the season. Interim Rams coach John Fassel was asked about Gurley’s confidence.

“He’s struggling to maintain it,” Fassel said. “There’s really no other way around it. I’m sure he wanted more this season, and it really just hasn’t happened yet. But, he’s tough, practices every rep at practice, he’s there early and attentive at every meeting. But, there’s no doubt confidence deteriorates a little bit when you don’t have the success that you anticipate.”

Contrast that to Johnson, who is playing for an offense that is unquestionably much better than the Rams but still has struggled much more than expected this year. Yet Johnson has been spectacular, reaching 100 scrimmage yards in every game despite constant shuffles in the offensive line, threatening to become only the third 1,000-1,000 player in NFL history (like Gurley, he likely won’t reach his mark either) and scoring a franchise-record 20 touchdowns already.

The issues with the Rams’ offense were known coming into the year. L.A. has bigger offensive line problems than the Cards. But Johnson is having the kind of season running backs dream about — the kind of season everyone was waiting for Gurley to have.

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