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For what it’s worth in June, offensive edition

Posted by Darren Urban on June 23, 2017 – 11:40 am

With about a month left before training camp (already?!?), it’s time to take a look at who I think the offensive starters will be come Sept. 10, when the Cardinals play the Lions in Detroit to begin the regular season. Could a training camp signing change things? Sure. I see more of a chance of that defensively than offensively.

My defensive thoughts are here. And after that, the blog posts will slow. Time off coming.

QB – Carson Palmer. You can’t get anywhere without a quarterback. Palmer finished strong in 2016. He’s a year older, yes, and no one is calling him a top-five QB. But he’s still very good when the offense functions well, and when his receivers don’t let him down.

RB – David Johnson. MVP-type player. Is he going to get 100 scrimmage yards every game? Maybe not, but he’s certainly going to have the opportunity. With his skills, and health, I’m not ruling out a 1,000-1,000 season.

WR – Larry Fitzgerald. After Bruce Arians had said more than once Fitz’s 100-catch days were behind him, Fitz has had two straight 100-catch seasons. Won’t be surprised to see him do it again. The question will be, is this his last season?

WR – Smokey Brown. He says he’s healthy. The Cards need him to be. Rookie Chad Williams may have an intriguing future, but this year, the Cardinals need the I-can-get-1,000-yards John Brown.

TE – Jermaine Gresham. So many have questioned his new large contract. But he’s been the best tight end the Cards have had since he showed up, and he does deliver some intangibles on the field this team can use.

TE – Troy Niklas. It’s a leap, yes, to assume Niklas will stay healthy. But every time, in the brief times, Niklas has been on the field, they like what he has brought. He’s not going to be a big pass-catcher. But he can block and he’ll play an important role – again, if he’s on the field.

LT – D.J. Humphries. He’s better suited for the left side. It’s tough for Jared Veldheer, but given ages and the future, this was all but predetermined when Humphries was drafted.

LG – Mike Iupati. Wasn’t as good in 2016 as he was in 2015, but I expect a rally. It’s important too – given his salary going forward, his age and the drafting of Dorian Johnson, the spotlight will be bright.

C – A.Q. Shipley. Showed the Cardinals he could start in this league. No reason to think he won’t again.

RG – Evan Boehm. I don’t see Johnson jumping into this job. Not yet. This is probably the second-most likely spot Keim could grab a vet, behind only No. 2 cornerback. But as it stands, Boehm is probably going to be out there.

RT – Jared Veldheer. Veldheer didn’t want to move from left to right tackle, but he did for the good of the team. Is there a transition to be made? Yes. Somehow, I don’t have much concern that Veldheer will make it work successfully.


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Peterson as punt returner — again

Posted by Darren Urban on June 2, 2017 – 8:54 am

An NFL lifetime ago, when Bruce Arians was simply a good offensive coordinator with the Steelers and the Cardinals were trying to turn Kevin Kolb into their long-awaited replacement for Kurt Warner, Patrick Peterson electrified the league with his punt returns. He scored four times that season and would’ve had five, were it not for a shoe-tip trip tackle in the season finale.

Peterson’s effectiveness at punt returning hasn’t been the same since. There are plenty of arguments why, whether it’s a safety issue — no one wants Peterson to become Jason Sehorn the sequel — or a blocking issue — Peterson intimated as much during an appearance on the “Bickley and Marotta” show earlier this week — or something else. But there is one thing Peterson still has that can’t necessarily be said for anyone else on the roster when it comes to punt returns. He has Arians’ trust.

Since Arians arrived the Cardinals have tried to find a legitimate replacement for Peterson on punt returns. Yet, as we stand here on the final day of OTAs, it looks like Peterson is headed for another season on the job. In a perfect world, the Cards would have a guy who could return kicks and punts, but rookie T.J. Logan should end up with the kick return spot and he’s never returned punts, and frankly, he probably shouldn’t start now. As excellent kick return man LaRod Stephens-Howling once emphasized, they are certainly not the same thing.

Smokey Brown is an option, although having your No. 2 receiver in harm’s way isn’t that much different than your No. 1 cornerback. J.J. Nelson has done it, but his double-whammy fumble/injury when he was doing it as a rookie in 2015 sticks in the mind. Nelson too is important to the offense and exposing his slight frame to more punishment would likely give pause.

Maybe it is as simple as getting Peterson better lanes within which to run. Maybe, as the Cardinals showed in 2015, as long as Peterson isn’t turning it over, that’s all they need in that part of the game. But getting a breakout return or 10 during the season wouldn’t be bad either.


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Cardinals celebrations? “Chandler likes to dance”

Posted by Darren Urban on May 24, 2017 – 1:54 pm

Here’s the thing about the new relaxed celebration rules in the NFL — I’m not sure exactly how much they’ll impact the Cardinals. They don’t exactly have a group of guys pining to make a scene post-play. On our latest podcast, we were talking about a power poll of Cardinals who were most likely to take advantage. I mean, it’s not going to be Larry Fitzgerald (“That’ll never happen,” coach Bruce Arians said. “Larry’s dance is dancing over to give the ball to the referee, which is what he’s supposed to do.”) We know Smokey Brown can dance, but his dance was already allowed in the rules and frankly, I don’t see him going much further than that. J.J. Nelson is pretty low key. David Johnson is definitely low key — it’s tough to embrace the nickname “Humble Rumble” and you know, not be humble.

Arians, in contrast to Marvin Lewis, is cool with the change. “I danced all the time when I scored touchdowns,” Arians said. “I didn’t get many. Danced my ass off when it happened.”

Arians, however, doesn’t figure to score at all these days. In terms of the current players? “I’m not really a dancing type of guy,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said, when asked about his potential plans. “I do love the fact the league is allowing players to show their personality, not putting us in handcuffs. I think it’s a great win for the players.”

Peterson’s first choice in the locker room “probably would’ve been Tony,” but alas, Tony Jefferson has moved to Baltimore.

“Chandler,” Peterson said. “Chandler likes to dance.”

Indeed, Chandler Jones came to my mind first. He’s further removed from the more buttoned-up culture of New England. He has the security of the long-term contract. And he definitely likes to have fun. Jones was asked about the new overtime rule but he said the celebration rule move was the “one that matters” to the defensive players.

Jones did say there wouldn’t be any choreography or dance practice. “That’s when it gets out of hand” and away from football, he said. But, he added, “I’ll have something cooking for sure.”

 


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To WR or not WR? That is question

Posted by Darren Urban on March 6, 2017 – 10:31 am

A year ago, the Cardinals had no better unit that their wide receiver corps. Larry Fitzgerald had an excellent season. Smokey Brown was a 1,000-yard pass catcher. Michael Floyd piled up 100-yard games down the stretch. J.J. Nelson was a big-play rookie, and even Jaron Brown and Brittan Golden had proven to have moments.

It’s different now. Fitz was still excellent in 2016. But Smokey got sick, and Floyd all but disappeared before being released. Nelson came on, but Jaron Brown got hurt. Questions at the position swirl, both for 2017 and the future given Fitz’s vague countdown to retirement sooner rather than later. That’s the backdrop the Cardinals have going into both free agency later this week, and into next month’s draft.

“It’s an interesting deal when you look at your depth chart every year and you think that’s really one of your strengths,” General Manager Steve Keim said of the arc of his wide receivers from season to season. “It always teaches you a lesson that you can never have enough good football players at one position because injuries, different things that can occur during a season (that) depleted the wide receiver corps this year.

“It goes back to show you, you may have a guy who is fourth or fifth on the depth chart, but you have to be comfortable when you head into the season that ‘I may be playing with this guy.’ Not only from a mental aspect but you have to feel he can get the job done physically as well.”

Coach Bruce Arians likes getting the smaller, fast wide receivers in the later rounds. But post-Fitz the Cards figure to need a bigger receiver. Maybe they seek someone in free agency, but if everyone is healthy, the Cards could conceivably roll this season with this corps intact. If someone pops up in the draft, you can think about that move.

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Bidwill: Franchising Jones, and London talk

Posted by Darren Urban on February 14, 2017 – 10:30 am

It’s been no secret — Bruce Arians made it pretty clear the day after the season — that the Cardinals are planning on using the franchise tag on linebacker Chandler Jones if necessary. Team president Michael Bidwill reiterated that Tuesday during an appearance on the “Doug and Wolf” show on Arizona Sports 98.7.

“We’re not going to mess around with that,” Bidwill said. “He’s a great pass rusher, but if we can’t agree to terms that work for us, we’re just going to franchise him. His people know that.”

Some of the other points Bidwill made (aside from a concert moving training camp for a few days):

— On the Cardinals’ own significant free agents: “We’re going to be negotiating with these folks and we already are, and we’re hopeful to get everyone under contract,” Bidwill said. “If we get everybody under contract, that’ll be a huge win for us. If we get most of them, that will be very good for us.”

Bidwill wasn’t specific about the players, but among them are defensive keys, Jones, defensive lineman Calais Campbell and safety Tony Jefferson.

— On the London game against the Rams, which will be either Oct. 22 or 29. “We’ve been lobbying for us to get over there,” Bidwill said. “(The league) wanted us to give up a home game, which we will have to do as part of the next bid for the Super Bowl, but we really wanted to be a visiting team. This year we finally got the call.”

Bidwill said the NFL is “overdue” in making the announcement over the specific date, and he will be pushing for that decision so that the team and fans can plan for the trip.

— Wide receiver John Brown should regain his form after battling his sickle cell issues, Bidwill said. “He is very healthy,” Bidwill said. “It looks like they found the issue and we’ll get Smoke back the way we had him.”

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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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Where there’s Smoke, there’s defiance

Posted by Darren Urban on January 27, 2017 – 12:09 pm

It was not a great season for John “Smokey” Brown.

He got a concussion in training camp, basically wiping out his preseason. He never quite looked like himself once the season started, but it wasn’t about the concussion but issues related to his having the sickle cell trait, which caused leg problems and robbed him of his quickness and speed. He ended up having his worst year as a pro (39 catches, 517 yards, two scores) as coach Bruce Arians said going into the offseason Brown and the team would continue to look for ways to manage Brown’s status and get him back to where he was in 2015 when he was a 1,000-yard receiver.

Clearly, Smoke feels he can get back there. He posted on Instagram “They counted me out after 1 down season,” which certainly is a message of irritation if not anger. These are the kinds of things a player says and does when he is motivated to prove others wrong. The Cardinals need Brown. They needed him this past season, but they definitely need him next year, with no Michael Floyd (and, at this point, with Larry Fitzgerald’s status TBD.) It certainly sounds like he feels like he can maneuver his way through his sickle cell issues and be the player he has already proven he can be on an NFL level. Which would be great for everyone involved.

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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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Keim: Agent talks ongoing with FAs

Posted by Darren Urban on December 19, 2016 – 8:18 am

Steve Keim noted — as was easy to see — that Calais Campbell played well in the loss to the Saints. And the Cardinals General Manager is not unaware of all the talk — including by Campbell himself — that Campbell might not be with the Cardinals next season with his free agency coming up (Campbell has made pretty clear he’d like to stay, but it’s a business.) The Cardinals have a lot of players who are about to become free agents. Keim, speaking on the “Doug and Wolf” show on Arizona Sports 98.7, emphasized Monday it’s not like the Cards aren’t trying to be proactive with their roster.

“One thing public does not generally know, we have spoken to many agents regarding players whose contracts expire after the season and some whose contracts do not expire after the season that we’d just like to try to extend,” Keim said. “It takes two sides. Those are conversations I’ll keep to myself, that we don’t generally talk about through the media. There are several players we’d like to have back, but it takes two sides.”

— Keim said the Michael Floyd situation and subsequent release was “an unfortunate incident for both sides. Michael has moved on and we have moved on and I wish him nothing but the best.”

Keim was also asked about the reaction from the players about Floyd’s release — it wasn’t hard to see Larry Fitzgerald wasn’t thrilled with the situation — and whether the team talked to the leaders in the locker room about the move.

“No, I think the one thing, as players, you never can tell what they are thinking,” Keim said. “There is no doubt there is a tremendous amount of loyalty from player to player, which you have to respect. These guys are in the locker room and they are fighting and they are competing. There is a natural love. And listen, it’s no different as an organization, you get emotionally attached to these players. So when you have to make tough decisions it’s extremely difficult because you don’t just think of guys as football players. You also care about the person.”

(As for the reasons why Floyd was cut, team president Michael Bidwill addressed those Sunday.)

— Overall, with the playoffs officially gone, Keim said his biggest disappointment was that the team “underachieved.” He wants to use the lost season as a learning tool. Along those lines, it includes the need to build the “right kind of locker room.” Looking at a guy’s physical tools sometimes can overshadow the smarts a player has or his ability to process information, which need to be factored in.

“That’s the hardest to see as an evaluator, the heart and the mind,” Keim said.

— Keim liked what he saw from Carson Palmer Sunday, as well as Smokey Brown, Campbell and Tony Jefferson. He thought the offensive line held up “fairly well” given their circumstances. As for some of the newer/younger guys, he noticed linebacker Scooby Wright make a good block on special teams and guard Taylor Boggs hold up after being beat early. Linebacker Sio Moore was active, although Keim acknowledged he got beat a few times later in the game. As for rookies Brandon Williams and Robert Nkemdiche, Keim was muted in his praise but he still gave some, saying Nkemdiche flashed a couple of times and he still feels both will improve heading into 2017.

“Like I said last week, we’re using these last three games as somewhat of a litmus test of where you want to go in 2017 (with the roster),” Keim said.


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Saints — and playoff-hope — aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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