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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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Keim on the future of the Cards’ receivers

Posted by Darren Urban on December 26, 2016 – 8:22 am

One of the big things Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim is going to have to deal with this offseason is the receivers room. It could be in major flux. Michael Floyd is already gone, Larry Fitzgerald could retire, and Smoke Brown is still trying to fully handle his sickle-cell issues. Monday, during his appearance on the “Doug and Wolf” show on Arizona Sports 98.7, Keim spoke on many of those players.

When it comes it Fitz, “he still loves the game and still plays at a high level,” Keim said. “There’s no doubt in my mind he should play next year.” Of course, Keim added, that will be up to Fitz. J.J. Nelson was fantastic in Seattle with 132 yards on three catches, including two giant plays that boosted the win. As far as him as a potential No. 2 receiver, “I’m not sure what his ceiling is, I just know he is a big-play guy.” He did say he thinks receivers coach Darryl Drake has helped Nelson become more physical. (But I’d agree, I think Nelson is developing into a nice and needed piece in the offense, but I don’t see him as a potential big-volume guy week-to-week.)

As for Brown, Keim acknowledged it is “always a concern when you can’t put a finger on exactly what is happening” when it comes to Brown’s health. But he said Brown will see specialists as soon as the offseason ends so that he and the Cardinals can find the proper way for both Brown to be healthy and for him to find again what was making him special on the field. “He’s a guy we are counting on,” Keim added.

— Keim has been very impressed — other than his foolish taunting penalty — with tight end Jermaine Gresham. The Cardinals have needed some emotional fire on offense, and Gresham definitely helps with that. “His physicality, mindset and passion for the game is something that has really excited me this year,” Keim said, noting Gresham’s effort in blocking more than anything. It’ll be interesting to see what Gresham does as a free agent, after signing here for little last season when he could’ve gotten a lot more money elsewhere. (And he needs to avoid the terrible penalties because of his emotions too.)

— Not surprisingly, he had praise for the offensive line, given the circumstances. “If you told me in August we’d beat Seattle in Seattle with John Wetzel and Earl Watford at tackle and Evan Boehm at guard, it’d certainly make me wonder,” Keim said. “For the most part those guys did the job.”

Carson Palmer was under pressure more than once but he was sacked only once and physically, the offensive line stayed toe-to-toe with a much-more celebrated opponent.

— There were a couple of throws he thought Palmer would’ve wanted back, but other than that, Palmer was sharp, Keim said. “He’s a competitor and true pro,” Keim said. “He’s been very, very good the last several weeks.”

— Another young player who held up was cornerback-turned-safety Harlan Miller, who played every snap at free safety when Tony Jefferson got hurt on the punt team before he even played a defensive play. Miller, by the way, hadn’t played safety before. “It was interesting,” Keim said. “On Friday, when B.A. came into my office and I let him know we were going to put Tyrann on IR, he told me that if Tony or D.J. Swearinger went down, we’d be in trouble just from a depth standpoint. Sure enough, first play of the game, Tony Jefferson is out.

“Harlan trots on to the field, and to his credit, the guy has never played safety before, coach Nick Rapone and James Bettcher put him in a position where he made a few plays and didn’t hurt the team. He’s another young guy who stepped up.”

— Finally, a good day for special teams. “That’s a group that’s been maligned and rightfully so,” Keim said. “But they stepped up to the plate.”


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Merry Christmas! Seahawks aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on December 24, 2016 – 9:28 pm

Harlan Miller wasn’t necessarily supposed to play. Heck, he wasn’t even going to be on the roster, if Tharold Simon hadn’t been cut last week. And he’s a cornerback.

But there he was, after Tony Jefferson – one of the few defensive backs who has stayed healthy all season – sprained his MCL on his first play, on punt coverage. Tyrann Mathieu was already on IR, Tyvon Branch too. Marcus Cooper was out. Justin Bethel used to be a safety, but he was needed at corner. So they sent Miller in to play free safety.

Keep in mind, Miller hasn’t practiced at safety.

“The only thing I could remember was (defensive backs) coach (Nick) Rapone in the safeties meeting telling them to stay deep,” Miller said. “That’s pretty much what I did.”

“I kind of know what a safety does. I just listened a lot.”

It was that kind of game Saturday. Fill in where you can. Hope it holds up. No, the secondary isn’t going to put this on the wall of fame, not with the way Russell Wilson diced them up in the second half. But within the circumstances, it was exactly what they needed. Justin Bethel played much better. Brandon Williams struggled, but he did enough – and his effort on the Tyler Lockett bomb, while unfortunately sending Lockett off injured on a cart, stopped the Seahawks from scoring any points given the Cards’ goalline stand.

— The offensive line too, Evan Boehm, in at right guard for Taylor Boggs who was in for Earl Watford who was in for Evan Mathis. Everyone who thought the Cardinals would be able to score 34 points in Seattle under those circumstances, raise your hand.

— Carson Palmer was great. His stats weren’t as gaudy as Wilson, but Palmer was a man who led his team in a situation where they needed it. Palmer already said he is coming back. Yes, I think the Cardinals should and will draft a quarterback of the future. But to anyone who thinks Palmer should step away and not quarterback this team in 2017, I think that’s crazy.

— Larry Fitzgerald was not a happy man the last couple of weeks. The losing had reached him, the Floyd situation, and he just looked down in the dumps. When the retirement stuff came up, it’s understandable why he’d consider it. I don’t think anything was determined Saturday – but it was a happy Fitz in the locker room. Everyone was happy, but it was particularly nice to see with No. 11.

— J.J. Nelson makes the best of his touches, doesn’t he?

— David Johnson cracks 100 yards. I didn’t think it was possible with the way the game was going, and then he blew past it late. Aside from his fumble – which was three-points-costly – he was the rock on offense. Grinding, grinding, grinding, near 100 yards rushing alone. And then that 29-yard catch to set up the game-winning field goal – MVP-esque.

“I was messing with Steve (Keim) earlier, we need to get his contract done right now, because after every game he getting more and more expensive,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s going to be like ten percent owner of the franchise.”

— (Just as a reminder, Johnson’s contract cannot be re-done or extended until after the 2017 season, per the CBA.)

— Boehm made a mistake on the Cards’ next-to-last drive, blowing his assignment to let Palmer get hit and force an incompletion. Center A.Q. Shipley let him know about it as they came off the field.

“That was on me,” Boehm said. “I thought I lost the game for us. Told myself if we got another opportunity I had to reprove myself that I belonged out there.”

— Fellow rookie offensive lineman Cole Toner got his first work on offense too, just like Boehm had done earlier in the season – as a lead blocker for Johnson.

— With the schedule a little warped this week and players off Monday, I’ll hold my weekly chat Monday afternoon at 3 p.m.

— Have to be happy for Chandler Catanzaro. It’s been a rough year, and I know sometimes fans don’t want to hear this, but he is loved in that locker room  and there isn’t a guy in there who wasn’t happy to see him come through.

— The Cardinals are now 3-0 with Palmer in Seattle. They have a confidence now.

— This is way too long on Christmas Eve. We’re heading back to Phoenix as I post this, and soon the Cardinals (and myself) will be headed home to be with our families. It’ll be a much better holiday for all involved.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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Broncos — and preseason — aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on September 1, 2016 – 11:32 pm

It’s late, it’s the fourth preseason game, and the reality is not much can be said until final cuts are made. So this aftermath will be short and sweet. There were some “stars” Thursday night — Elijhaa Penny ran the ball really well — but then you hear Bruce Arians talking about Stepfan Taylor being one of the core guys on special teams and you remember that many of these roster spots have already been determined, the process of seeing all these guys over offseason workouts and an entire training camp and three previous games.

(Still, if a guy like Penny isn’t picked up on waivers, I can’t see how he wouldn’t be on the practice squad.)

I tweeted late in the game that if I had a do-over on my guess at the 53, it’d be that Lamar Louis would make the team. He’s impressed, and more importantly, Arians keeps talking him up. We’ll see. Special teams is the key to these final couple of spots, Arians stressed, and Louis is playing well in that area.

— Special teams will be impacted with the short-term loss of linebacker Kareem Martin. Martin hurt his MCL and Arians said they are hoping he’s only out two or three weeks. You have to wonder, if fellow linebacker Tristan Okpalaugo hadn’t gotten hurt earlier (it was announced as a right knee; Arians said after it was a hamstring) and was still playing if Martin even would have been on the field. Bad luck all around.

— In terms of outside linebacker depth, if Martin is down, Arians said Alani Fua can play outside as well as inside. And if anyone was unsure if Fua was going to be on the team, there’s your answer.

— Earl Watford had never played left tackle in a game. Now he has. Could the Cardinals go with just three backup OL right now — center Evan Boehm, perhaps guard Cole Toner and Watford, who can play every position? Watford can play all five positions and will be the sixth offensive lineman.

— The Cardinals have run the ball very, very well all preseason. Bodes well.

— Robert Nkemdiche played well, in different spots, and was in on a sack late.

— Not a great night for the top cornerbacks. Justin Bethel sat out because of his foot. Brandon Williams didn’t have one of his better games, but it was better than Cariel Brooks, who was in position to be the fourth cornerback and did not play well at all.

— Nice pick-6 by ILB Gabe Martin late in the game, but I’m not sure it was enough to make the team. Would they keep Martin over veteran Chris Clemons?

— I don’t expect cuts to be announced before the weekend, even though Arians was talking about hard decisions being made Friday.

— Finally, a 59-yard field goal by Chandler Catanzaro, which would have been the second-longest in team history had it been in the regular season (Jay Feely booted the 61-yarder against Buffalo in 2012). Will Cat Man have chances like that in the regular season?

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Wednesday before the Broncos

Posted by Darren Urban on August 31, 2016 – 11:08 am

It’s an early edition of a “Before” post, but later today I will put up my guesstimate at the final 53-man roster — at least the one the Cardinals figure to have without knowing who is cut from other teams and who the Cards might try to claim on waivers or sign. Before then, there is a game to play.

It’s a different kind of game, since most starters won’t even be dressed. This game is about precious few rosters spots and the push to at least be asked on the practice squad (or trying to impress 31 other teams to pick someone up). Bruce Arians estimated the Cardinals have about 12 players fighting for about four spots. Impossible to know what we are talking about, but here are some of the positions/players that could be in that conversation:

Offensive line: Earl Watford as tackle/G Cole Toner/C Evan Boehm/T John Wetzel. Watford figures to make this team because he’s so versatile. And Toner has made a strong push to stay after seeming to be a long shot when camp opened. Boehm, as a fourth-round pick, will stick, but can he keep pushing to see if he gets playing time. Here’s the question: Can Watford show something at tackle so that, at least for now, he can back up there?

Secondary: CB Cariel Brooks/CB Harlan Miller/CB Ronald Zamort/S Matthias Farley. It was telling when Arians, asked about the cornerbacks beyond Justin Bethel and Brandon Williams at this point, only mentioned Brooks, who has put himself in a good place for the 53 especially given the Mike Jenkins injury. Can another cornerback step up? At safety, the Cards already have so many in play (Branch, Mathieu, Swearinger, Jefferson, Christian).

ILB: Chris Clemons/Lamar Louis/Donald Butler/Alani Fua/Gabe Martin. Technically, Clemons is listed as a safety but he’s basically been Deone Bucannon’s “moneybacker” backup. Do the Cards stick with the vet? Or is the youth of say, Martin make sense. Lamar Louis has been very good on special teams too. For these guys, special teams may be the place to watch.

There are others, but with everything done over the summer and camp and three preseason games, most decisions have already been made.

— The Broncos have already announced that their No. 1 pick, quarterback Paxton Lynch, will play the entire game Thursday. He’s their QB of the future. It’s something interesting even for Cardinals fans — and you wonder, had Lynch fallen to No. 29, if the Cards would have grabbed him.

— Arians isn’t sure cutting down the preseason will help the teams. Yes, injuries can happen, but he said doesn’t think two preseason games is enough to prep a team for the season.

“I think you have to build your roster, and the only way to build it is see these kids play,” Arians said. “The fourth preseason game is not for your starters. It’s for those guys who you build your roster on, build your practice squad on, the guys who need that week of work and that game. You’ll need them in November and December.”

— Arians isn’t worried about the leadership/knowledge lost in the secondary with the departures of Rashad Johnson and Jerraud Powers. Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson have worked to fill that void. “All those guys making all the checks,” Arians said. “And with that, they’re not leaning on somebody. They used to lean on Rashad, so they wouldn’t study as hard.”

— Mathieu and John “Smokey” Brown have been cleared to play, but honestly, I’ll be surprised if either does play. As for Justin Bethel, with a sore foot, does he give it a try? He may just rest too. Arians said Bethel will have to play with a sore foot all season, but Bethel had already said he had to play with soreness last year as well.

— Final cuts won’t be announced until the weekend (they are due at 1 p.m. Arizona time Saturday). Until then, let’s finish up the preseason.

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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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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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Keim: “Good chance” Nkemdiche plays Sunday

Posted by Darren Urban on August 22, 2016 – 8:16 am

The Cardinals had a bunch of players come back to practice this week, and — barring anything between then and Sunday’s third preseason game in Houston — General Manager Steve Keim said the team will be in pretty good health against the Texans.

During his appearance on the “Doug and Wolf” show on Arizona Sports 98.7, Keim said that, after talking to head athletic trainer Tom Reed, the Cardinals may only have “one or two” players too injured to be available for the next game. Keim also said that rookie defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who has been out since suffering a high-ankle sprain during quarterback school work and hasn’t practice in camp, has a “good chance” to play against the Texans. Coach Bruce Arians said that Nkemdiche should be back at practice Wednesday.

Other news and thoughts from the Keim conversation:

Like Arians, Keim isn’t worried about the Cardinals or their preseason performances in terms of how they will do in the regular season. But “we need to pick up our level of urgency.” Keim said. “You can’t go out when the season starts and turn the switch on. … You can’t sleepwalk through the preseason. (Friday) was a great lesson for our players.”

— Keim told MMQB.com’s Peter King that it was a “chicken(expletive) call by me” not to take a chance on quarterback Russell Wilson in the 2012 draft, and that he “didn’t have the balls to take Russell Wilson.” Keim is constantly preaching the need to self-evaluate, and that certainly qualifies.

“He is a great learning lesson for all of us,” Keim told Arizona Sports.

— Aside from allowing a pressure on the first snap, Keim said he thought right tackle D.J. Humphries was better than his first game. Keim also liked how guard Evan Mathis played, and he likes the progress — although it’s slower — of rookie OLs Cole Toner and Evan Boehm.

— On the idea Arians would like the Cardinals to practice against another team a couple of times in next year’s training camp: “I love it,” Keim said. The Cardinals might try to visit one team for a week and host a team another week. A handful of NFL teams did that this year. Keim (and Arians) love the idea of going up against another team as a measuring stick and to break up the monotony of camp.

— Keim said potential trade talks, with the Chargers or any other team, are ongoing and usually don’t heat up until the end of the preseason.

— There is still a learning curve for rookie cornerback Brandon Williams, Keim said, but “quite frankly, I thought (his struggles) would be a little worse.” Keim is pleased with Williams’ progress thus far.


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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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Rookies signed at warp speed

Posted by Darren Urban on May 9, 2016 – 3:22 pm

It’s not hard to remember, not if you have been following the Cardinals for any length of time, but signing draft picks used to be much, much more difficult. Yes, the ease in which picks are signed these days is rules-related — once the new collective bargaining agreement essentially slotted each pick’s money and took the hardest part (money) out of the negotiating equation, things were going to speed up.

But to think the Cardinals already have all of their draft picks under contract on May 9 is impressive. The time frame to finish up since 2011, when the new CBA went into effect, has gotten earlier and earlier:

2011: Amid the chaos of so many signings as the CBA was ratified post-lockout just as training camp was starting, first-rounder Patrick Peterson and second-rounder Ryan Williams signed July 31.
2012: First-rounder Michael Floyd and third-rounder Jamell Fleming signed June 11.
2013: First-rounder Jonathan Cooper signed July 29.
2014: First-rounder Deone Bucannon signed June 5.
2015: First-rounder D.J. Humphries signed June 1.
2016: Sixth-rounder Harlan Miller, third-rounder Brandon Williams and fourth-rounder Evan Boehm sign May 9.

The Cardinals aren’t unique — the Bears have been signing their entire draft class within a couple days of the draft the last couple of seasons, for instance — but to have all those deals done not only before the players break prior to camp but before OTAs have even begun is a good thing. The days of the Cards having their first-round pick sit out at least a few days of training camp — or more, Wendell Bryant — are long over.

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