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Hoping for a return in the return game

Posted by Darren Urban on April 16, 2014 – 11:12 am

Everybody remembers Patrick Peterson’s wonderful rookie season returning punts — four touchdowns (and a fifth he should have had if not for a shoetop tackle by the punter in the finale against Seattle). Peterson averaged 15.9 yards a punt return, the Cards averaged 24 yards a kickoff return between LaRod Stephens-Howling and A.J. Jefferson and it was generally an effective use in Ron Wolfley’s beloved “transition game.” Obviously, the last couple of years, it hasn’t been quite the same.

In 2012 Peterson’s average fell to 8.4 yards a return with no scores. A dropoff was probably inevitable, but Peterson looked uncomfortable much of the time. The kick return game dropped to 23.3 yards a return, although finding a happy medium for effective kick returns in this day and age of big kickoffs and mostly touchbacks isn’t an easy equation. Last season, Peterson’s punt returns fell to 6.0. Kickoff returns were a mere 20.0, and former kick returner Javier Arenas often looked so frustrated he rarely could return one that he did so when he shouldn’t, leading to poor field position.

It’ll make for an interesting dynamic this season. Ted Ginn was signed to add speed in the receiving corps, but it’s not hard to make the argument his greatest strength as a player is on kickoff returns (where he averaged 23.8 yards a return last season). He’s also pretty good on punt returns (12.2 yards last year), and that will provide an option if Bruce Arians decides Peterson is better served focusing on being a Pro Bowl cornerback and remove the pressures of being the guy who everyone thinks might score a touchdown every time he fields a punt. Peterson doesn’t want to give up the job, but we’ll see how it turns out in the big picture.

The Cardinals’ offense was doing much better at the end of the season and should be improved given the pieces that have been added. It wouldn’t hurt if the kickoff and punt returns could chip in to the improvement equation.

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Rams aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on September 8, 2013 – 8:53 pm

It was toward the wrong end zone, and it was the Cardinals’ defense instead of its offense, but it was difficult not to look at Tyrann Mathieu racing down the middle of the Edward Jones turf Sunday behind a breakaway Ram and not think of Steve Breaston.

In 2010, Breaston, the wide receiver, had a wasn’t-gonna-give-up play after a Cardinal turnover, and a sure Rams TD was undercut when Breaston knocked the ball loose and into the end zone, where the Cardinals recovered. This time, it was Mathieu, flying up behind Rams tight end Jared Cook and improbably popping it loose – into the end zone, where linebacker Karlos Dansby jumped on it.

Honey Badger – remember, he’s good with it again – said he was just always going to try and make a game-changing play, and that could have been it. Perhaps should have been. The Cards save seven points there and when they took the 11-point lead into the fourth quarter, you were thinking that should have been enough.

That wasn’t the only déjà vu I had Sunday though. Watching running back Andre Ellington run that key third-down wheel route – and see him get wide open beyond the linebacker – reminded me so much of the one LaRod Stephens-Howling ran in Philadelphia in 2011 on a key third down during the Cardinals’ game-winning drive that game. Ellington was in position to do the same – except the pass never really had a chance.

(By the way, Stephens-Howling tore his ACL Sunday playing for the Steelers and is out for the season. Brutal.)

The Cards won the Breaston game. The Cards won that Hyphen game. They couldn’t win Sunday.

– We’ve had this discussion before, about Levi Brown. I’m guessing this won’t be the last time. He didn’t play well enough against the Rams. Got a holding call and was beaten three times by Robert Quinn for sacks. And then, after the game, Bruce Arians first said – before he even got a question – that he wasn’t worried about his offensive line. Then, asked about Brown specifically, said Brown was his guy and made the point there was no one better to replace him with.

I know everyone says it should be Nate Potter, but Arians gave Potter a lot of opportunity in the preseason and Potter did not seize the moment (in fact, struggled at times like Brown did, mostly against guys deeper on the depth chart.) The way Arians talked Sunday, he feels strongly there is no one on the roster for which to bench Brown. Steve Keim is always looking for upgrades, but I’m not sure you’re going to find a left tackle on the street. The Cards would have loved for one of those tackles to fall to seven in the draft, but it didn’t happen. They took Jon Cooper, and yes, I am sure left tackle will be a point of emphasis next offseason.

– Carson Palmer looked like he had plenty left to me.

– Andre Roberts had the stuffing beaten out of him, and he held the ball every time. It may have been Roberts’ best game as a pro.

– The Cardinals missed Daryl Washington. It’s obvious to say a team misses a Pro Bowl player, but he would have been able to make an impact. Maybe been a better matchup for Rams tight end Jared Cook.

– Speaking of linebackers, Arians said John Abraham was fine. He didn’t play a ton though.

– With 26 seconds left and the ball on their own 20 in the first half, it would have been easy for Bruce Arians to sit on the ball. But the man who says “No risk it, no biscuit” risked it, and Carson Palmer, after a completion, hit three straight long passes to set up a 50-yard field goal. Unfortunately, Jay Feely pushed it a bit wide right, painful in a three-point loss.

“We couldn’t have executed it any better,” Arians said. “You have to make that kick and that was the deciding factor in the ball game.”

– Javier Arenas didn’t play defense, but the veteran cornerback was in there to return kickoffs. It didn’t go well. One time he fielded the ball deep in the end zone and was stuffed short of the 10-yard line. Another time, a return from deep ended up being fumbled, although the Cards fell on it.

“You have to make better decisions,” Arians said. “Stay in there.”

– We’ll see how the Cards adjust this week. And we’ll see if the Cards make any roster moves too.


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Considering Alfonso

Posted by Darren Urban on July 31, 2013 – 5:59 pm

Alfonso Smith first came to the Cardinals in April of 2010. It’s been a journey back and forth since then. He’s always flashed talent, but he could never get past guys with more glittering resumes like Tim Hightower/Beanie Wells/Ryan Williams/LaRod Stephens-Howling/Chester Taylor. Last year, in fact, he was released in favor of William Powell at the end of camp. But when Wells and Williams suffered more injuries, the Cards brought Smith back, and it is he and not all the others (save for Williams) who is still around.

Now, everyone is talking about Rashard Mendenhall’s career comeback or what Williams can still do or what draftees Stepfan Taylor or Andre Ellington might be able to do. Smith still has an uphill climb to a roster. He knows this.

“Man, in the past when I was younger it would frustrate me and it would cloud my mind and I wouldn’t perform to the best of my ability,” Smith said. “Now I know sometimes things aren’t in my hands and I just go out there and give it all I got and coaches, fans and y’all (in the media) see hey, I can play. I know those guys have proven themselves too. But I do have talent and I work hard and I am just as good.”

It’s hard not to notice him. You can argue he isn’t always going against the top part of the roster, but Smith looks the part much of the time. And he practices like you’d expect — like he knows his time could be cut short at any point. The other day during 1-on-1 pass protection drills, Smith had a pair of doozies with linebackers Jasper Brinkley and Reggie Walker (below) when he doggedly battled in a setup that are designed to make it very hard for a back to be successful.

“I look at the defense that they are trying to take food out of my mouth, they are trying to take food away from my family,” Smith said. “I take it very personal. When I saw Mendenhall and Ryan (Williams) go out and the defense kind of got the best of them, it pissed me off. That’s like seeing your brothers getting in a fight. I just wanted to go hit the defense in the mouth.”

The numbers say the Cards will keep at least four running backs. Keeping a fifth is usually a luxury. So Smith fights to see if he can stick around yet again.

“(Coaches) don’t really tell me anything but I know when I do well,” Smith said. “I grade myself hard. When I mess up one time out out of the whole practice, I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve got to fix that because I know my window is not as big as theirs and my opportunities are slim.’ That’s all I can do.”


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Honey Badger and Day 2 aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on April 26, 2013 – 10:30 pm

Well OK then.

So I was thinking it would have been interesting — very — had the Cardinals taken Manti Te’o in the second round. Instead, they traded out of the pick because they were looking at another inside linebacker in Kevin Minter, could get him later and get an extra pick, and it turned out they weren’t as close to seeking Te’o as I might’ve thought. But hey, the Cardinals made up for it by going with the NFL Draft’s other co-winner of the “huge story leading into the draft” player — Tyrann Mathieu.

There is little question Mathieu is a risk. And that’s probably an understatement. But the Cardinals know that. They have Mathieu’s mentor, Patrick Peterson, in the same locker room (and I would bet their lockers will be adjoining when all is said and done). Certainly, Mathieu can help. Bruce Arians talked about the ability for Mathieu to essentially be a secondary swingman, a free safety/nickel corner/cornerback that could stay on the field in all situations. It just feels like an all-or-nothing choice: He’s either going to be a dynamic star, or he’ll wash out because of his personal problems.

– It was fitting, I suppose, on the day LaRod Stephens-Howling officially found a new home with the Steelers, that his famous emotional conference call after he was drafted was surpassed by the tears flowing in Mathieu’s call. I mean, the Hyphen only got choked up for an answer or two. Mathieu was so emotional I wasn’t sure at first we were going to be able to understand him. I can’t blame him.

– The addition of Mathieu, with his skill set, may seal the end of the Josh Cribbs possibility. Arians at the owners meetings even talked about adding Cribbs and how great it would be to put him and Peterson back together on punt returns to mess with the opposition. Friday, Arians talked about Mathieu and Peterson doing it. I asked GM Steve Keim if Cribbs was now off the radar. “That’s something we have already explored,” Keim said. “At this point, I really can’t get any further into it, so I will leave it at that.” Watching Keim say it, it sure didn’t sound like Cribbs was coming.

– Kind of feel bad for Minter. His arrival got overshadowed quickly.

– Oh, we still have another day of the draft? Yes we do. And the Cards still have five players to take. Those first two picks in the fourth round are interesting. Now with two choices, I could see the Cards taking a flyer on one of the quarterbacks. Could they pull the trigger on Matt Barkley? I could see it. That extra pick is gravy; They were going to take Minter in the second anyway. So maybe Barkley or Ryan Nassib or Tyler Bray are in play. People loved matching Barkley and the Cardinals at No. 7 way back at the Scouting combine (which was foolish) but a fourth-round pick — one of two — could be palatable.

– The Cards likely will take a running back at some point. Johnathan Franklin is available. I know people bring up Marcus Lattimore and it is a great and inspirational story. But I know I wouldn’t touch a guy who already has blown out two ACLs, especially  a running back.

– I still expect the Cards to at least think about adding a pass rusher project tomorrow, and a pure speed deep threat receiver.

HoneyAftermathUSE


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Cribbs still in play

Posted by Darren Urban on April 17, 2013 – 9:17 am

Many have asked what is happening, if anything, on the Josh Cribbs front. Alex Marvez reported this morning that Cribbs is still on target to take another physical for the Cardinals “in a few weeks” and if Cribbs passes the physical, the Cards still plan to sign him. Cribbs is recovering from a torn meniscus.

It would be interesting to see if the Cards picked up anyone on draft weekend — with a pick or as an undrafted guy — who could fill a similar role as Cribbs. It’s clear at this point LaRod Stephens-Howling, who remains unsigned, isn’t part of the Cards’ plans going forward. (Could that change if Cribbs, for instance, fails his physical? Maybe. Also a maybe if the Cards don’t address running back on draft weekend. But right now, I don’t expect to see the Hyphen here.)

Bruce Arians talked a month ago about how Cribbs could fit with the Cardinals. First he has to prove himself healthy enough, however.

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No Cribbs — at least for now

Posted by Darren Urban on March 19, 2013 – 9:06 am

Well, apparently the Josh Cribbs physical didn’t go as well as it could have, which probably isn’t a surprise by now since there was still no news about the Cardinals making a contract offer. This morning, there was a Will Burge report that he failed his physical.(Another report said he didn’t “fail” the physical, but we may be talking semantics here.)

Then Mike Garafalo got in touch with Cribbs’ agent, who said the free agent wide receiver/special teamer had just had an arthroscopic procedure to repair the meniscus in his knee and it wasn’t yet healed. More interestingly was Garafalo’s tweet of the agent saying that the Cardinals are expected to give Cribbs another physical “in a few weeks” and if he is healthy then, Cribbs should sign with the team.

A few weeks in the NFL is a long time. That will be after offseason work has started. Is it after the draft? Could the Cardinals make a move in the meantime to fill that role, making Cribbs the odd man out? Would that open the door wider for LaRod Stephens-Howling to return? (And for the record, I’m not saying Cribbs and the Hyphen are absolutely tied together. I’m trying to connect dots with skill sets.)

For the short term, though, the Cribbs questions can stop.

CribbsBlogUSeThis


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Rashad Johnson comes back

Posted by Darren Urban on March 12, 2013 – 10:09 am

The news first spread last night but it became official this morning, with safety Rashad Johnson agreeing to a new three-year contract with the Cardinals. Johnson was already taking playing time from veteran Adrian Wilson last year, and the pieces of this day came together over the past week — Wilson being released, and Johnson coming back to a probable starting job.

At the Scouting combine, general manager Steve Keim made it clear he was happy with Johnson’s progress in the secondary and signaled the Cards’ interest in working out a new deal.

“Rashad was a guy last year who I felt really improved,” Keim said. “His cover skills, his consistency in the alley, coming to balance as a tackler, we felt he really, really improved. Where as in years past I felt like Rashad would fill the alley a little out of control a little bit and he learned to play with a little more patience, which I think served him well.”

Free agency begins at 1 p.m. Arizona time today. The Cardinals figure to keep trying to bring back cornerback Greg Toler, who is letting the market set his worth. It’s sounding less and less likely the team brings back running back LaRod Stephens-Howling (which is a bummer, because I would miss the Hyphen.) Of the Cardinals’ other own free agents, other than perhaps linebacker Quentin Groves — and even on him I am not sure — I could see the Cards moving on in almost every case.

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No more Beanie, and new wideouts hit NFC West

Posted by Darren Urban on March 11, 2013 – 2:13 pm

I thought the day before free agency began was supposed to be quiet.

Instead, it most certainly has not been, not for anyone following the Cardinals. The Cards continued to make moves by cutting running back Beanie Wells — more on that in a minute — while NFC West foes Seattle and San Francisco set up trades for Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin and Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin, respectively. Those teams were already set up for success and obviously, both players make them better.

(The deals, which can’t be made official before tomorrow at the earliest, are different in nature, though. The Seahawks gave up a three-pick haul for Harvin, including their first-round pick, and will need to sign him to an extension. The 49ers gave up just a sixth-round pick because everyone knew the Ravens were going to cut Boldin, and that could very well be a one-year rental depending on why direction the Niners want to go in 2014. Boldin has one year left on his contract. The Boldin deal can’t be completed before he takes a physical either, and that comes after he completes his trip to Africa with Fitz.)

In the meantime, the Cardinals let Wells go. Beanie always knew it was a likely result. He believes he can rebound from his knee problems at age 24 but they have dogged him for more than a year now. When healthy — heck, even when kind of healthy in 2011 — Wells could run over opponents with the best of them. He had some runs as a rookie on that 10-win 2009 team that made you wonder why he wasn’t playing more. But when you don’t catch passes or block tremendously well, when running is mostly what you do, you need to be able to do that often. He didn’t miss a ton of games before last season but going forward, with a new offense, the marriage between the Cards and Beanie didn’t make a lot of sense to continue.

Next at running back? Ryan Williams will get a shot, I’d think, depending on free agency. The Reggie Bush buzz will be floating out there until Bush signs somewhere. Maybe it’s him. Maybe someone else. Maybe the draft makes sense. But if you are certain you will get a big name back there, remember the Colts and Bruce Arians rode Vick Ballard last year and no one knew who Vick Ballard was before that. There has been zero talk about LaRod Stephens-Howling so I’m not sure if he is still an option to be re-signed. The overhaul continues.

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The speculation of free agency

Posted by Darren Urban on March 10, 2013 – 9:17 am

It doesn’t matter when free agency starts, whether it is a “soft” opening like the NFL has tried this year or the normal start of free agency (deals can be consummated starting at 1 p.m. Tuesday) — there will be rumors and speculation. It’s always tough to know exactly where it’s coming from. Is the agent just trying to drum up a market for the player? Is it serious interest? Sometimes, it feels like the recruiting process in high school for an athlete — a player could have “interest” from Alabama and Michigan and LSU and Oklahoma, but was it a form letter sent out to dozens of players or was it a phone call from Les Miles?

(And yes, obviously an NFL player isn’t getting a direct phone call from a team right now, because of the rules.)

So it’s within this context that the news must be viewed of the Cardinals looking at cornerback Sean Smith, or interest in Reggie Bush, or return man Josh Cribbs. Obviously, the Cardinals are going to have to be active in free agency to a point, because they will need to fill out a roster that has shrunk through recent cuts. This is the new NFL by the way — Rick Gosselin notes 11 players who started 16 games this season have been cut already, along with three others who started 15 games (including Adrian Wilson.) It will be very interesting to see what kind of contracts are reached with many of these players on the market. The Ravens are looking for Anquan Boldin to take a pay cut, which he doesn’t want to do. It’s a tough time to be an older veteran, regardless of performance.

As for what might happen with the Cards, well, they’d like to re-sign cornerback Greg Toler and safety Rashad Johnson. There hasn’t been much talk about free agent LaRod Stephens-Howling and the Bush news — if accurate — would not bode well for the Hyphen’s return. Neither would someone like Cribbs. (It does seem like interest in Bush contradicts Bruce Arians’ concept of a three-down back, but reports are Bush has become better all-around in Miami compared to his Saints years.)

This week will be fun to watch play out.


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Big week for Cards and any contract talks

Posted by Darren Urban on March 4, 2013 – 11:32 am

On Saturday, NFL teams will be allowed to start officially talking to free agents for other teams. They can’t officially sign anyone until next Tuesday afternoon, but the window opens Saturday. That means if a team is going to make a strong run at their own guys, this is the week to do so. So for the Cards, who I think would like to bring back cornerback Greg Toler and safety Rashad Johnson, talks would step up now, I’d think. Same with quarterback Kevin Kolb, assuming there will be talks.

(Although unlike Toler and Johnson and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, Kolb can’t suddenly start talking to other teams Saturday. He is under contract unless the Cardinals cut him, and thus cannot shop himself around.)

Again, and I go back to what general manager Steve Keim said a couple of weeks ago. This close to free agency, some players just want to test the market, unless their own team will overpay for the honor of not doing so. The market will set the price. Does that mean you could lose a player? Of course. Once he is free, any control of the situation is over.

One final point: Sitting with a little more than $5 million of cap space even before anything is done with Kolb or anything else buys the Cardinals some time. Kolb, who has a $2 million roster bonus due in another week or so, will have to be dealt will soon. The Cardinals haven’t said anything to safety Adrian Wilson about his future (via Kent Somers) but again, because the team is under the cap and functioning with Wilson’s current contract, it’s hard to know if that means that Wilson is simply safe or that the Cards will talk to him later about a restructure or something else. I wouldn’t be surprised at an influx of youth this season (more on that later today in a post) and so transactions might start following that path.


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