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Christian Kirk and the “new” passing game

Posted by Darren Urban on May 8, 2018 – 10:41 am

The idea is that Christian Kirk, as a second-round pick, will be able to step in and make an impact as a receiver right away. Beyond Larry Fitzgerald, there is certainly an opening at the position. There is a lot to sort out, of course — what might the role of J.J. Nelson and Chad Williams be going forward, how much more might tight end Ricky Seals-Jones be used, will running back David Johnson slide right back in as the second-leading pass-catcher like he was in 2016. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is just now building out what he might want to do. That will take some time.

As polished as Kirk might be at this point, coming in and doing big things right away as a rookie receiver can be difficult. You need opportunity as well as skill. You also need to figure out just what the expectations would be for “making an impact.” Last year, Rams third-round pick Cooper Kupp made an impact, even if his numbers wouldn’t necessarily make him an obvious Pro Bowl candidate (62-859-5). Former third-round Cardinals pick John Brown did the same in 2014 (48-696-5). If Kirk could replicate either of those seasons, I’d guess the Cardinals would be pretty happy.

A look at every receiver drafted over the last three years by pick 47 (Kirk’s spot) or earlier finds plenty of lost rookie campaigns. Using Smokey Brown as a potential benchmark, of the 19 wideouts taken at 47 or higher, only three (Sterling Shepard, NYG, 2016; Michael Thomas, New Orleans 2016; Amari Cooper, Oakland, 2015) had as many catches as Brown as a rookie (65, 92, 72, respectively.) Only two, Thomas and Cooper, had as many yards as Brown (1,137 for Thomas, 1,070 for Cooper.) The same trio were the only ones to reach the five touchdowns of Brown (Sterling 8, Thomas 9, Cooper 6).

That’s 16 wide receivers that didn’t do a ton as a rookie (Houston’s Will Fuller did go 47-635-2 in 2016, so he was close). Again, when looking to see what Kirk might be able to have, recent perspective counts.


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Pass interference, and how painful it should be

Posted by Darren Urban on March 23, 2018 – 10:17 am

Next week at the annual spring league meetings, owners have the chance to tweak various rules concerning the game — including yet again another adjustment to what constitutes a catch, but more on that next week — and that includes pass interference. Defensive pass interference has long had controversy with it, especially because it is often a judgment call in the first place and because it can be so harsh. DPI, of course, is a spot foul, so a flag thrown 45 yards downfield becomes a 45-yard penalty even if the interference was ticky-tack or unintentional. It can swing a game.

The proposal out there is for DPI to be a 15-yard penalty only, as it is in the college game. The caveat is that officials would have the right to make it a spot foul for an “egregious” foul, or one considered intentional. That would truly be the ultimate judgment call.

The NFL’s executive VP of football operations just happens to be a former longtime defensive back, and Troy Vincent on a conference call Friday morning didn’t sound enthusiastic himself about a change. Vincent said NFL defensive backs are “too skilled, too smart” to give them such a loophole.

“You don’t want the defensive back being able to strategically grab a guy,” Vincent said.

Still, the possibility of a change wouldn’t have gotten this far without some support. In his heyday a couple of years ago, one of the strengths of former Cardinals receiver John Brown was his ability to draw pass interference calls deep downfield even if he couldn’t make the catch. Those were always important yards that wouldn’t really be seen in the statistics. In an NFL where the rules have long tilted toward offense and the passing game in particular, this might be a shift to make it a little more even.

Unless (until?) defensive backs do figure out a way to use it to their advantage.


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Larry Fitzgerald’s return, and what it means

Posted by Darren Urban on February 15, 2018 – 12:12 pm

Fitz’s future remains on the field.

We know that now, after the wide receiver let his new head coach know Wednesday night and then Steve Wilks told the world Thursday morning. The speculation had been going on for weeks, and even in the times Fitz talked about it, he sounded like someone who wasn’t ready to retire but there was always that little thought that he still might. That’s what happens when you don’t say you are playing for sure.

But that’s a question to park until next November/December (and yes, it’s going to come up again then, unless, of course, Fitz makes some definitive statement before that time.) What this news means now has a few levels to it:

— The Cardinals keep their best wide receiver. The wide receiver corps has a ton of questions around it. John Brown, Jaron Brown and Brittan Golden are scheduled to become free agents in a month. J.J. Nelson had times when he shined last season, but times when the Cards wanted more consistency. Chad Williams, 2017’s third-round pick, remains a question mark. Plus there will be a new offense. The Cards need to address the position this offseason. That doesn’t change even with Fitz’s return, but his presence makes any transition that much easier.

— He made the decision before knowing who the quarterback will be, and that’s a sign of belief in the franchise, if nothing else. It’s not like the Cardinals can make any QB moves at this point. Fitz has caught passes from 17 quarterbacks in his 14 years after Blaine Gabbert joined the group last season, so he knows what it’s like to be flexible. “I’ve had some years in Arizona where things weren’t always easy, but they’ve always done a good job of addressing that position, and they’re trying to,” he said last month. Faith reigns.

— He entrusted the news to Wilks, which feels like a sign of respect. Look, Fitz doesn’t love this storyline, he doesn’t like talking about his status one way or the other (his retirement news, whenever it comes, is going to be absent a live Fitz as well, I’m guessing, since he’s all but promised as much). I’m still not sure he’s met Wilks face-to-face, even. But Fitz flew off to New Zealand and told his new coach to tell everyone, and that bodes well for the relationship.


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The pursuit of happiness (for Smokey Brown)

Posted by Darren Urban on December 27, 2017 – 12:47 pm

Here’s the thing about John Brown. He is well-liked. You could see it in the reaction after he scored his touchdown Sunday against the Giants — Drew Stanton ran into the end zone dancing, Larry Fitzgerald delivered a patented Fitz-tackle, and then Fitz and Jermaine Gresham picked Smoke up and carried him a bit in celebration. And then you heard it after the game:

“It’s great to see John come back and get that touchdown,” coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s still not full speed, but it meant a lot to him to get out there and play. It meant a lot to me to see him play.”

“It’s a lot of fun when you see good things happen to those guys,” Fitzgerald said. “Smoke needed that, we needed that, and hopefully, we can get a little bit more done next week.”

That’s another reason why Brown’s status is so interesting heading into the offseason. No, the fact his teammates and his coach want him to do well isn’t why, unto itself, you bring a guy back. Brown’s market — such that it will be, after two years of injury-impacted struggles, including a disappointing 21-299-3 line this season — doesn’t figure to be intense or expensive. He is light years from his first two seasons, in which he had a 1,000 yards in 2015 and multiple huge plays as a rookie in 2014. Will the Cardinals bring him back as a potential piece, a wild card bonus if he can stay healthy? Given his health history, the Cards can’t pencil him in (if he came back) high on the depth chart. But the guy, when he has been right, has proven he can make plays.

And that makes everyone happy.


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Keim: Learn from 2017, no “woe is me”

Posted by Darren Urban on December 26, 2017 – 8:16 am

The Cardinals are analyzing their free-agents-to-be and with some of them, the team has/will be formulating extension offers, General Manager Steve Keim said Tuesday during an appearance on 98.7, Arizona’s Sports Station. The players Keim wants back are, not surprisingly, not only competitors on the field but good in the locker room. That was a focus last year as well.

“That’s an ongoing process and we have made some of those players extension offers,” Keim said. “The bottom line is we have a lot of work to do, as I said last week.

“We’ve dealt with enough adversity this year with the injuries and with some of the losses, so we have to make sure we use this season and, in particular, our issues that we have dealt with, as learning things, where we can look back and grow from it instead of having the attitude of ‘woe is me.’ That is something I believe in wholeheartedly, not only on the scouting side of it but as an organization in general.”

— The many injuries have made it more difficult to evaluate some key players here and there, Keim acknowledged, but “at the end of the day there are still one-on-one battles these guys have to win.”

— Does having a chance to knock the Seahawks out of the playoffs mean a lot for Sunday? “Anytime you are playing a division rival it’s big regardless of what is at stake,” Keim said. “We are all competitors. We want to win every game. In my opinion, you can’t look at where your draft slot could potentially be. Let the chips fall where they may. We owe it to our fans, we owe it to our organization to compete every week and to try and put the best product on the field. We will deal with draft and free agency when it comes. This week our mindset is to go up to Seattle and get a win.”

— The Cardinals’ first shutout since 1992 “says a lot of things about players on the field and the character in our locker room.” Keim credited the game planning of defensive coordinator James Bettcher. He also said he though $LB Deone Bucannon not only played his best game of the season, he had arguably his best game in the NFL, period. Chandler Jones provided pressure and drew a couple of holding calls, Frostee Rucker and Karlos Dansby are invaluable leaders, and safety Antoine Bethea was “exceptional” in getting a pair of interceptions.

— Keim added his thoughts to the huge game of wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who Keim said took over the game offensively. “There’s no doubt he willed us to win on offense.”

— Keim added that it was nice to see John Brown contribute with a touchdown and a key third-down conversion with his two catches.


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John Brown returns, Kerwynn active

Posted by Darren Urban on December 24, 2017 – 1:02 pm

Wide receiver John Brown, who has been dealing with a toe injury that has kept him out four games, will return to the field today against the Giants — which hopefully, combined with Drew Stanton back at quarterback, will aid a passing game and an offense that is trying to get a touchdown for the first time in more than 10 quarters.

Running back Kerwynn Williams and linebacker Karlos Dansby, both of whom were questionable to play, are also both active.

A full list of the Cards’ inactives here on Christmas Eve:

— QB Matt Barkley

— WR Chad Williams (illness)

— LB Gabe Martin (hamstring)

— LB Josh Bynes (ankle)

— G Earl Watford (ankle)

— TE Troy Niklas (ankle)

— DL Xavier Williams


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Cards will need hard look at receiving position

Posted by Darren Urban on December 20, 2017 – 12:08 pm

It’s hard not to notice, when you jump on the Cardinals’ stat page to see where Larry Fitzgerald’s numbers are and then the disparity with the rest of the receiving corps — a group that once again was expected to be a strength but like 2016, has not been. With two games left in the regular season, it is still the departed Andre Ellington (who was cut five games ago) second on the team with 33 catches. Fitzgerald’s 92 receptions is nine more catches than all the other wide receivers this season combined.

If David Johnson had been healthy all season, you’d expect a running back to be high on the receptions list, just like last year. But Johnson didn’t even make it through a game, and once he went down, the pressure went to the receivers to make up for it in the passing game. There are factors involved here — the pass protection has not been consistent, especially with all the injuries on the offensive line. Starting quarterback Carson Palmer only played half the season. But it’s clear that receiver — after only the QB spot and offensive line — will be a position of focus for General Manager Steve Keim this offseason.

Even if Fitzgerald comes back to play another season (which he has not said he will for sure yet), the Cardinals need to address wide receiver. John Brown and Jaron Brown will be unrestricted free agents. J.J. Nelson, who started strong and then struggled through inconsistency catching the ball, will be back. Chad Williams enters an important offseason after a nondescript rookie year. Brittan Golden, who is more important on special teams, has to heal from a broken arm and is also a free-agent-to-be.

After 2015, when the receiving unit was excellent and looked like it would be for a few years, the group hasn’t been the same. Losing Michael Floyd and having John Brown’s production fall off so precipitously has been a killer. Again, other spots will get more attention on offense. The quarterback thing has reached a critical point, and the long-term offensive line has to be found. But wide receiver will also be in the spotlight.


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Injuries undercut Cardinals’ WR choices

Posted by Darren Urban on November 26, 2017 – 12:56 pm

John Brown (toe) had already been ruled out, and the Cardinals will also be without Brittan Golden (groin) for today’s game against the Jaguars, making the struggling receiving corps that much thinner. Chad Williams not only will get his first significant playing time of the year, he will be needed. Special teams also takes a hit with Golden and safety Rudy Ford out — Ford hurt his knee in practice Thursday.

The Jaguars are going to have cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who hurt his hand in practice this week.

The full Cardinals’ inactive list:

— QB Matt Barkley

— WR Brittan Golden (groin)

— WR John Brown (toe)

— WR Calrton Agudosi

— S Rudy Ford (knee)

— C Max Tuerk

— DL Corey Peters (ankle)


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Eagles aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on October 8, 2017 – 3:23 pm

J.J. Nelson wore an ice bag on his side, courtesy of the first hit he took in the game Sunday. The last one left more of a mental bruise – one in which it looked like the wide receiver would make the final score look a tad better on a 29-yard touchdown catch from Carson Palmer, only to have the TD erased and the ball lost when replay showed Nelson losing a fumble at the 1 and through the end zone.

“I was just trying to make a play, stick it out there (across the goal line),” Nelson said, shaking his head. “The guy hit me, and made a nice play.”

The score wouldn’t have really made a difference, but it figured to end like that. The loss in Philly couldn’t have been much uglier (although someone on Twitter suggested it was the Cards’ worst game in 10 years, and wow, that anyone could forget the 2012 Seattle trip stuns me). All the Cardinals’ current issues were laid bare – a failure to run, problems on the offensive line, an inability to score, giving up too many big plays – and then you add it a breakdown on third down defense. The Eagles weren’t just converting third downs but long third downs.

The backbreaker, although the game was basically secured by then, was the 72-yard TD on third-and-19, with the blitzing Cardinals unable to get to the quarterback. That was a common theme. The pass rush took a step back, and whether that was Markus Golden missing or something greater, it’s not a great sign.

Bruce Arians took the blame a couple of times in his press conference. He said he didn’t have the Cardinals ready to play. From a 40,000-foot level, seems an apropos assessment.

— The offensive line started Earl Watford at left guard. At one point, when right tackle Jared Veldheer had to leave briefly with a knee issue, the line was, from left tackle to right tackle, John Wetzel, Watford, A.Q. Shipley, Evan Boehm and rookie Will Holden. Veldheer did come back into the game, although Arians said Veldheer will be sore (and said the same about DT Corey Peters, who also left for a time with a knee.)

If Veldheer is OK, and maybe D.J. Humphries and Alex Boone can come back next week …

— It did seem like Arians stuck to the run more. It still didn’t produce. Only 2.2 yards a carry.

— Larry Fitzgerald keeps grinding. He didn’t have a catch for a while until grabbing one for a reception in his 200th straight game. He finished with six receptions for 51 yards.

— The Cardinals have lost long snapper Aaron Brewer with a broken wrist/hand, Arians said. So they’ll be in the market. Josh Mauro and Boehm filled in and did OK. But the blocked field goal was because of the snap. It wasn’t bad, it was just a tick slow – which is all it takes for a guy coming off the edge.

— Haason Reddick did play some outside linebacker, but he was having trouble getting past the blocking when rushing the passer. There will definitely be a learning curve there.

— Palmer didn’t have bad stats, but they could have been. He was nearly picked off three times on plays that were broken up by his wide receivers. Nelson had one and John Brown had two, showing off two different cornerback skills. The first Smoke did a nice job simply knocking it away. The second was in the hands of Jalen Mills – and Brown timed his hit perfectly, landing a heavy body blow as Mills was coming down, jarring the ball loose.

It was a day to seek such silver linings.


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Keim: Managing the injuries

Posted by Darren Urban on October 2, 2017 – 8:15 am

Sunday’s game wasn’t the textbook win, but Steve Keim doesn’t much care about that. “Anytime you can win a game ,it’s a positive,” the GM said Monday during the “Doug and Wolf” show on Arizona Sports 98.7. “I would’ve preferred to win 38-10, but I think winning a game like this early in the season can do some things for your team internally to build confidence.”

The Cardinals are now 2-2, but Keim, once again could have a significant injury with which he has to deal. This time it’s linebacker Markus Golden, who is getting an MRI after hurting his knee. “I’m always fearful anytime a player can’t return to the game,” Keim said. “If I was going to bet on anyone, I would bet on Markus for two reasons. One he walked off the field and I’ve had two ACL (injuries) and I know what it’s like. And there’s no tougher player on our team in terms of playing through pain.”

UPDATE: Ian Rapaport is reporting that Golden is out for the season after tearing his ACL.

Still, Keim said it’s his job to have a “plan in place” if there is a player lost. Losing Golden would be a blow. Keim said it would be “hard to say” if left tackle D.J. Humphries (knee) will be back this week. Guard Alex Boone (pectoral) might be ahead of schedule, Keim said, but he too is iffy.

— The Eagles are another team with a good pass rush and the fractured nature of the offensive line gives pause. The Cardinals managed to protect Carson Palmer pretty well in overtime Sunday as opposed to a rough afternoon the rest of the game. But Palmer was hit 16 times, which is way too many, and they have to find a way to drop that number.

— Keim wasn’t saying wide receiver John Brown, who is still dealing with the quad issue, is 100 percent healthy. But he “just brings another element to the offense that we’ve missed.” The question is how well Smoke bounces back. Brown played in the opener and found that his quad got worse. The Cardinals have to hope Brown can start playing every week.

— There was praise for Palmer — “Two weeks in a row Carson has played very, very well,” Keim said, but again, there is the obvious: Without better protection, Palmer’s success is somewhat limited.

— There were too many holding penalties on the offense, while the defense did some bend-but-not-break work to keep the Cards in it (and the way the Cards’ D performed in the fourth quarter was excellent, to force overtime.)

— Keim said running back Andre Ellington is playing with a lot of confidence, which isn’t  surprise given that Ellington is now healthy. “He is a natural fit in this offense, especially in the passing game,” Keim said.

— As for 11? “To finish is with a kiss by Larry Fitzgerald was special,” Keim said.


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