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Edge and the falling value of running backs

Posted by Darren Urban on April 17, 2014 – 11:01 am

It was a rainy Saturday in March 2006 when Edgerrin James visited the Cardinals for the first time. Kurt Warner was gamely trying to hold his annual flag football tournament on the practice fields, and the Cards were in the process of locking up a star running back. The price, in the end, was four years and $30 million. James didn’t collect all of it, but he still got plenty. The Colts felt James was on the downside, not worth the cash, and in the end, they were proven right that they didn’t need him — winning the Super Bowl in 2006 with young Joseph Addai and the serviceable yet forgettable Dominic Rhodes at running back.

The overall trend to run through running backs when they were cheaper and then move on hadn’t enveloped the NFL completely. But that’s about when the Cards’ thought process turned. From there, Tim Hightower was a fifth-round pick who essentially replaced Edge in 2008. Beanie Wells was added in the first round for 2009. Ryan Williams was drafted in 2011. Then came Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor last season. The Cardinals have not spent anything close to significant money on a free agent running back since Edge. They have yet to have a running back drafted play past his rookie contract. The reality of the NFL is that the position has not only be devalued, the bottom dropped out of the market faster than Arizona home sales circa 2009.

Only Williams is scheduled to make at least $1 million this season, and whether he remains on the 53-man roster for 2014 is very much up in the air. Ellington (who only will make $495,000) is the starter, and whether Taylor ($495,000) or Jonathan Dwyer ($795,000) is the other back, there is little (relative) investment. You see the same across the league, with the money being paid to free agent running backs, with the way running backs are sliding down the draft every year. The way things have gone, that No. 3 overall pick spent on Trent Richardson might be the last time a top 10 pick is spent on a back ever.

Of course, “ever” is a long time. Sometimes, a back is special and deserves the big money. Adrian Peterson comes to mind (and no, we won’t go into how he ties into the Cardinals and the Edge signing right now.) But these days, it doesn’t look like many Petersons will emerge. Not the way colleges are using running backs themselves, and not the way the NFL is handling them once they get to the pros.

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Take offense? Or get defensive?

Posted by Darren Urban on January 28, 2014 – 12:47 pm

When the Super Bowl is played Sunday, it will feature the best offense in the NFL — Denver scored 606 points this season, an incredible 37.9 per game — against the best defense in the NFL — Seattle not only allowed the fewest yards, but also the fewest points this season. A tangible example of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. It’s hard not to see it as the answer about that “defense wins championships” cliché that floats out there.

It also got me thinking about the Cardinals, and their better recent teams.

The 2008 Cardinals made the Super Bowl after scoring 427 regular-season points (26.7 points a game) and followed up in the playoffs with 30, 33 and 32 points before scoring 23 in the Super Bowl. Of course, that team allowed 426 points, which is why they eeked out a 9-7 record. It was a potent offense. This season, the Cardinals put together 10 wins in large part because of the defense. The Cards were tops in the league in run defense, sixth overall and seventh in scoring defense. It would be interesting to consider that 2008 offense — Kurt Warner, Fitz in his prime, Anquan Boldin, 1,000-yard Steve Breaston and the Edge/Hightower RB tag-team going against the 2013 Cardinals defense.

Which is the better path to take? It’s hard not to think that defense wins titles. It’d be good to see Peyton Manning win another Super Bowl, but I’m not totally sure why the Seahawks aren’t favored in this game, at least a little. Maybe it’s because of last year’s Super Bowl, when a couple of defensive-dominant teams ended up playing in a scorefest. That was in the climate-controlled Superdome, though, and Manning won’t have that advantage Sunday.

As far as the score-first Cardinals versus the defense-first Cards? There’s a reason why Kurt Warner has said this year’s Cardinals team was better than his 2008 version. Part of that was that this year’s team could score a little bit too — with 379 points (23.7 a game) it wasn’t like the Cardinals couldn’t find their way into the end zone. I’d argue that Andre Ellington gave the offense an explosive element that 2008 offense didn’t really have either. Nevertheless, it’s a great debate to have.

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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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Catches from the backfield

Posted by Darren Urban on February 19, 2013 – 3:12 pm

Just in case anyone wasn’t sure about new coach Bruce Arians wanting to get the ball downfield if possible in the running game, Arians makes it pretty clear what he wants to see in his running backs.

He wants someone who can run, of course. And block. Beyond that? Let’s just say that fantasy football players in points-per-reception leagues aren’t going to look at the Cardinals first.

“They are back there because they are runners and pass protectors,” Arians said. “Will we throw to the backs? Yeah. But the receivers are the ones paid to catch it. (Running backs) are helping but it’s doubtful our running back leads the team in receiving.”

Last season, injuries crushed the Cards’ running backs, so reception totals don’t correspond perfectly in what the prior staff wanted to do in the passing game, but even Ken Whisenhunt’s pass game didn’t use the backs a ton as receivers (especially after Tim Hightower left.) William Powell had the most catches for a running back last year (19), and that was sixth on the team behind Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts, Michael Floyd, Rob Housler and Early Doucet. LaRod Stephens-Howling was tied for seventh with tight end Jeff King with his 17 catches. Ryan Williams had seven receptions, Anthony Sherman five and Beanie Wells only had one.

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Talking trade, and blacking out

Posted by Darren Urban on October 9, 2012 – 5:06 pm

There are a lot of questions I am getting about trades when it comes to a running back. If the Cards go get another running back, I think it will be the free-agent route. That way you don’t surrender a draft pick at a position that you need short-term help with. It’s tough when people start throwing out names like Chris Johnson or Maurice Jones-Drew or even Mark Ingram, all of whom apparently have been suggested as targets. Stop. Those aren’t going to happen for a multitude of reasons.

The one trade name that does make some sense to me is Chris Ivory in New Orleans. He’s shown before he can perform and he is buried deep, deep on the Saints’ bench behind Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. But the Saints know the Cards need a back, and they might just hold up the Cards for a higher pick. Frankly, in this day and age where backs have become more and more disposable, it’s hard to think that’s a good idea. Ivory was undrafted and has shown well — maybe William Powell can do the same for the Cards.

Free agency makes more sense to me, if and only if the Cards decide they need someone. That’s no sure thing right now.

As for available free agents, well, the name that comes up over and over is Tim Hightower. He knows the team and the offense. But Hightower isn’t healthy right now. The Redskins, who cut him in camp, thought about bringing him back when Roy Helu went down for the season and not only is Hightower still coming back from an ACL tear, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said he had a setback and was having an arthroscopic procedure on his knee. That was a couple weeks ago. (The Redskins signed Ryan Grant instead.) Could Hightower be in the mix down the road if he heals up? Maybe. But the Cards have had their fill of injured backs. They don’t need another so they would have to be sure where Hightower stands health-wise before that could be explored.

– If you missed it, check out this story of defensive lineman Nick Eason, his mom , and why this month of pink in the NFL is so meaningful to him.

– The Cardinals, in case you missed it on Twitter yesterday, will be wearing their black uniforms again Sunday against Buffalo. Because of the various NFL rules in place for alternate uniforms — you can’t wear them in nationally televised games, you can’t wear them after flex scheduling starts — this is the last opportunity for the Cards to do so.

– The Big Red Rage has been moved to Wednesday night because of ASU football, so anyone heading to Majerle’s — special guest Vonnie Holliday — make sure you adjust your schedules accordingly. Same time (6 p.m.), same place (Chandler Fashion Mall).


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Hitting the ground (in St. Louis) running

Posted by Darren Urban on October 2, 2012 – 1:50 pm

The Cardinals aren’t running the ball as well as they would like. That’s not a mystery. “It’s disappointing we’re not running the ball better,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said, “but that’s something that we can work on. Hopefully we can get better at it.”

It’s not as if the Cards haven’t flashes, especially late in the Philadelphia game when Ryan Williams had the majority of his 83 yards on 13 carries for that game even though the Eagles knew he would be toting the ball. But against Miami — a team with arguably the best run defense in the NFL — Williams managed only 26 yards on 13 carries. The Cards only had 15 total attempts for 28 yards (William Powell had the other two carries and two yards) as they played catch up most of the game.

“I think we still have a lot strides to make in the running game,” Williams said. “(Find out) what are our bread and butter plays, things of that sort.”

By coincidence, the Rams are next up, and that might just make an impact.

The Rams are giving up 135 rushing yards a game (the Cards are averaging 68.) And it should be noted, the last time the Cards went into St. Louis last season, Beanie Wells blew up. By the time the Cards finished with a 23-20 win, the running back had piled up a franchise-record 228 yards.  Now, Wells isn’t around this time, having gone to temporary IR last week. This is Williams’ show now. But history provides optimism: Since Whisenhunt arrived in 2007, a Cardinal back has surpassed 100 yards rushing in the five trips to St. Louis four times — Wells, Tim Hightower (twice), and Edgerrin James. A good day from Williams would help the cause.


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Friday before the Redskins

Posted by Darren Urban on September 16, 2011 – 4:56 pm

It was hard not to notice back in training camp. Tight end Jeff King had scored a touchdown in a practice, and he leaped afterward and spiked it through his legs. He said it was his trademark – kinda funny, since King is known as a blocker – but he followed through.

There King was, scoring on his 48-yard TD reception last weekend and, boom, a spike between the legs. He even recounted the play this week, saying that on his mind as he sprinted for the end zone “I was just thinking I have to spike it at some point.”

“It’s been a constant throughout my career,” King said. “I think was that number 10, so that was my 10th spike.”

King knows his TDs. That was indeed his 10th career touchdown, and he certainly went between the legs last season when he scored against the Cards when he was playing for the Panthers. The tight ends have been let loose in Arizona.

– Coach Ken Whisenhunt said this week he liked his linebacker play and apparently, so did the website ProFootballFocus.com.  After grading film they put together an all-Pro Football Focus team for the week. Not only did Daryl Washington make the NFL-wide list but so too did veteran outside linebacker Clark Haggans. It would be huge if Haggans is able to keep up that sort of work.

– This will be the week, I think where we see some things from a pair of veterans who didn’t do anything last week: running back Chester Taylor and linebacker Stewart Bradley. Obviously, Taylor was inactive last week, having joined the Cardinals too late for Whisenhunt to want to play him. Bradley was active, but played little other than special teams because he was still getting his feet under him.

I think both would have had a role against the Redskins, but with both Washington (calf) and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling (hand) questionable to play, it would just up the ante of needing Taylor and Bradley. When it comes to Bradley, the Cards have long lauded the flexibility of starter Paris Lenon – who played both inside linebacker roles last year – and Lenon could switch to Washington’s side to allow Bradley to be in his more natural spot.

– As for the ex-Cardinal running back, Tim Hightower said this game is “going to be little extra sentimental and a little more emotional, just because I kind of grew up (with the Cards).

“The incentive there is like when that teacher has been teaching a student, and that student finally gets to a point where he is kind of on his own and you get a chance to come back and see the teacher, you want to put your best foot forward,” Hightower said. “That’s the mindset I’m taking this week.”

– On the other side of that trade, Cardinals defensive end Vonnie Holliday smiled when he thought of playing the Redskins. “I feel like I kind of raised some of those guys up,” Holliday said. “I feel like I know what it takes to beat them, some of their weaknesses and some of their strengths. I can tell my guys about that here.

“Same thing on the offensive side of the ball … if a guy is shaded this way, this is what that means. I know they know that too. Certainly at this point in my career I have to be a student of the game. I take a lot of pride in that. The fast-twitch is not the same, so you have to anticipate. That’s what I do in the game, from the front to the secondary, I pay attention.”

– Speaking of learning and teaching, in some ways, the Redskins did just that with the Cardinals. After Mike Shanahan was fired by the Broncos and before he was hired by the Redskins, he did a training camp tour that included a stop in Flagstaff to look at the Cards — and specifically, how they ran the 3-4 defense.

“When I came back to Washington something I wanted to do is run the 3-4, because if you look over the past 25 years, it’s probably the most successful,” Shanahan said. “I like the indecisions, from an offensive standpoint, of not knowing which linebacker was coming and the overall philosophy of keeping an offense off balance.”

– The last two times the Cardinals have gone to Washington  — 2007 and 2008 – they have stayed in the game and had a chance to win in the fourth quarter, except they were unable to come up with a winning kick. I’d think it’ll come down to whether the defense can come up with a more effective outing. There’s no question Rex Grossman has a history of making mistakes if you pressure him enough.

Offensively, you’d think the Cards will be effective. The hope is Larry Fitzgerald is able to be more involved, but quarterback Kevin Kolb did a good job looking elsewhere when necessary.

Who knows, maybe King will get a chance to spike the ball again.


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Hightower’s “guarantee”

Posted by Darren Urban on September 14, 2011 – 11:34 am

Former Cardinals running back Tim Hightower made a guarantee of sorts earlier this week, when the Redskins’ back said “We’re going to win this game” when asked about playing the Cards in Washington Sunday. I’m not sure what else he is supposed to say, especially playing his old team.

“It’s kind of funny it has even come to that,” Hightower said. “That’s one of those things where anyone who’s lived life long enough and been through anything, knows that life isn’t guaranteed. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. People are going to take it however they interpret things. I know my intentions. I don’t have any disrespect for anybody there, but I am a competitor. I want to win.

“If it was the other way around and I was on (the Cardinals) I would be saying the same exact thing. … I know coach (Ken) Whisenhunt is going to have that team prepared and they are going to expect to win. It wasn’t anything disrespectful. I didn’t take a shot at anybody and it wasn’t an arrogant comment. It was just confidence in my team and the competitor in me.”

My guess is that the Cardinals players know that. Hey, this isn’t Namath and Super Bowl III. If anyone isn’t already thinking Hightower would desperately want to beat his former team this weekend, they are being naive. In any case, it will be interesting to see how this one plays out — I don’t think it’s easy to gauge exactly where the Redskins or the Cardinals are at this point, other than their records are each 1-0.


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An eye open, then adding a CB

Posted by Darren Urban on August 29, 2011 – 1:54 pm

The loss of cornerback Greg Toler to a knee injury is a blow, and it’s a tough coincidence that the two good players the Cards dealt in trades — Tim Hightower and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie — happen to play the positions where the two season-ending injuries occurred with Toler and Ryan Williams. In the meantime, coach Ken Whisenhunt continued to say the same thing: The Cards will keep an eye on who is available, but in neither case are they definitely going to add someone.

At cornerback they still have A.J. Jefferson, Patrick Peterson and Richard Marshall to man the top three spots. At running back, they are still intrigued by Alfonso Smith (although he unfortunately is dealing with a hamstring problem right now, which kept him from running the ball against San Diego the other night).

There will be players who come available not this week but next weekend that can change the equation.

UPDATE: The Cardinals did add a cornerback Monday afternoon, signing Fred Bennett while waiving-injured LB Brandon Sharpe (hamstring). Bennett, a 2007 fourth-round pick of Houston, actually started 17 times in 40 games for the Texans from 2007-09. He spent time with San Diego and Cincinnati last season, and was just released by the Bengals this weekend. He has five career interceptions.

“We are always looking to get our team better,” Whisenhunt said. “It may be this week, it may be after this week, we will look and see. It’s got to be the right fit for us. You get a sense in training camp you have all these numbers that you don’t have in the regular season. We don’t have six corners or five corners or five running backs on the regular roster. We will look and see what’s available.”


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Hightower traded to Redskins, Deuce suddenly returns

Posted by Darren Urban on July 31, 2011 – 3:00 pm

I suppose, in this crazy, condensed offseason, the unexpected should be expected. So I wasn’t too surprised today to hear running back Tim Hightower was traded to the Redskins, in exchange for veteran defensive end Vonnie Holliday and a sixth-round draft pick. I was, however, stunned to hear that guard Deuce Lutui flunked his physical with the Bengals, with whom he signed last week. I was also stunned to hear the Cardinals then brought him back on a one-year contract. That’s certainly not how Lutui wanted his free agency to play out. That dynamic now that he is returning, and how/if he fits into the lineup, will be very, very interesting.

As for Hightower, another good man in that locker room, it was clear when they drafted Ryan Williams that, eventually, Hightower or Beanie Wells would be moving on. I thought it might not be until after this season. Turns out it’s today. The fumbling issues really hurt Hightower. So he signed his tender and gets a shot with the Redskins (Cards at Washington, Week Two, by the way) and the Cards alleviate the crowd in the backfield and get vet depth to work along the defensive line.

Dang, I can barely keep up.


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