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Niklas moves on, and the Cards at tight end

Posted by Darren Urban on April 4, 2018 – 1:17 pm

Once, veteran teammate John Carlson said of rookie Troy Niklas, “He looks like a 12-year-old boy who swallowed a grizzly bear.” At 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, Niklas — the Cards’ second-round pick in 2014 — was a prototype tight end for coach Bruce Arians. He just couldn’t stay on the field enough, beset by ankle and wrist problems.

So Niklas moved on Wednesday, agreeing to a deal with the Patriots. It’ll be very interesting to see how Niklas performs there, especially in an offense that will throw to the tight end. Niklas is no Gronk athletically (no tight end is), but he figures to get more targets and he is coming off his best season, albeit with a low bar. In 2017, Niklas in 15 games had 11 catches for 132 yards and a touchdown, after totaling just eight receptions in 26 career games over his first three seasons.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals are going to have to address the position. As long as Niklas was out there, there was a chance he could return (the Cards also lost a potential depth guy on the offensive line when Earl Watford moved on to the Bears this week.) Jermaine Gresham is coming off an Achilles injury and is limited right now in his offseason work, although I thought he looked better than I might have expected when he was doing what he could Tuesday. The Cards also have Ricky Seals-Jones, who flashed as an undrafted rookie but still skews heavily as a receiver and not a blocker (not a shock, given that he was a wideout in college.) Gabe Holmes also remains.

At this point, it might make more sense to wait until after the draft, see if a tight end emerges there, and then reassess the position afterward.


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Cards could still re-sign own FA or two

Posted by Darren Urban on March 28, 2018 – 7:36 am

The majority of the Cardinals’ own unrestricted free agents have found a home going into the 2018 offseason, but there are still some that have not yet signed anywhere. The door isn’t necessarily closed that one — or a couple — could come back.

“It’s still a possibility,” coach Steve Wilks said at the NFL league meetings in Orlando. “I know some of those guys have gone on and gotten with (other) teams, but in that second wave, third wave, we can circle back and find out from a financial standpoint if it is feasible (for someone to return.)”

Feasible usually means how much the player is willing to take monetarily. He also has to still fit in the depth chart, and we are creeping closer to the time when teams will simply put free agency on hold until after the draft, to see what holes are filled in that regard.

Of the remaining free agents the Cards still have, some could make sense to return: guards Alex Boone and Earl Watford, since the line could still use more depth; safety Tyvon Branch after the release of Tyrann Mathieu (although the significant knee injury Branch suffered last season will be a factor, as will his age); running back Kerwynn Williams; defensive lineman Frostee Rucker; and, given a position shortage, tight end Troy Niklas. (The full Cardinals’ free-agent tracker is here.)

The Cardinals will eventually get to 90 on the offseason roster, but they are at 63 now. (Update: Make that 64.) Usually, between draft picks and undrafted rookies, the Cards add around 25 players. That would leave a couple spots still — and, of course, if they found a better option, they could also eventually release someone already in place.


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Watford, Niklas playing; Bynes sits in finale

Posted by Darren Urban on December 31, 2017 – 12:59 pm

The Cardinals will have offensive lineman Earl Watford (ankle) and tight end Troy Niklas (ankle) in today’s season finale in Seattle. With John Brown playing again, Chad Williams will be inactive again one more time — he will be facing a big offseason heading into his second year. Linebacker Josh Bynes (ankle) was listed as questionable, but he was DNP all week so again, not a surprise to see him sit.

The final inactives for the season:

— QB Matt Barkley

— WR Chad Williams

— LB Edmond Robinson

— LB Josh Bynes (ankle)

— C Max Tuerk

— TE Gabe Holmes

— DL Xavier Williams


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Paydirt drought, and Washington aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on December 17, 2017 – 4:36 pm

It was the kind of catch you just expect Larry Fitzgerald to make, because he’s simply done it so many times before – fourth down, a gotta-have-it-grab from the guy you go to when you gotta have it. But the ball dribbled out as Fitz hit the ground. So close, just like the rest of the day for the Cards.

“None bigger than the one I needed to make at the end of the game there,” Fitzgerald said. “Going a whole 60 minutes not scoring a touchdown offensively, that’s obviously below standard.”

It’s been a whole 60 minutes two games in a row. Plus the second half of the game before that. It’s not that the offense is doing nothing. The Cards had 141 yards rushing Sunday, and reached the red-zone six times. It’s that they can only get three points at a time, which makes winning so hard.

Blaine Gabbert will remain the starter at quarterback. Gabbert took the blame but had no specifics on why the offense stalls so much. As well as Gabbert began his games as a Cardinal, the recent work, even behind the beat-up offensive line, will give the Cardinals’ braintrust a lot to consider when looking at Gabbert for the future

— Larry Fitzgerald is 18 yards shy of 1,000 yards receiving this season, and he would have been a lot closer had he been able to make that catch.

— Speaking of missed catches, tight end Troy Niklas was understandably upset with himself for not pulling in that last would-be touchdown. He was a stand-up guy to talk about it. Truth be told, if he doesn’t pull a sure interception away from linebacker Zach Vigil early in the drive, he wouldn’t have even had a chance to get the TD.

— Bruce Arians was right. One touchdown would’ve been enough. I think of two specific times: After the long onsides kick to open the second half – the fans, who booed the Redskins off and on all day even though they led the whole game, were ready to turn if the Cards could’ve put it in the end zone – and then, of course, right before the half. Two straight plays to D.J. Foster were open for TDs. Foster didn’t look soon enough for the first one – off his helmet incomplete, and it’s possible he and Gabbert didn’t see the same hot read – and the second one was batted away with Foster by himself in the end zone. Epic levels of frustration there.

— If Brittan Golden was going to end up with a fractured arm on his last excellent punt return of 15 yards to set up a short field, it would’ve been nice to reward him with a win. Golden is one of those guys you root for, busting his butt to have whatever role he can fill.

— Chandler Jones sack counter: He got one Sunday, giving him 15 on the season, putting him third on the franchise single-season list and putting him 1½ shy of Simeon Rice’s franchise record with two games left. Jones also pressured Washington QB Kirk Cousins a ton of other times.

— You know D.J. Swearinger wanted this one. And he made sure to let the Cardinals sideline – and coach Bruce Arians – know it on one of the last plays of the game, an incompletion to Fitz on third down, the play before Gabbert’s final throw.

— Speaking of that final throw and Swearinger, there was a moment where Swearinger’s emotion almost cost the Redskins dearly. After the ball came loose from Fitz – on fourth down – Swearinger ripped his helmet off in celebration. The problem? You can’t take your helmet off on the field. If it had been third down, the Cards would have had an automatic penalty. But because it was fourth down and it came after the incompletion, it ultimately didn’t hurt Washington.

— Phil Dawson seems to be well past his accuracy problems, right?

— Speaking of special teams, Andy Lee has had a tremendous second half of the season. He’s punting like he did when he was dominating as a 49er all those years (and making life miserable for the Cardinals).

— If you would’ve told me the Cardinals would outrush Washington, 141-31, I would’ve expected a win going away. The defense did enough to win.


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Dray provides tight end insurance

Posted by Darren Urban on September 14, 2017 – 8:35 pm

Troy Niklas appeared on the injury report today with a hip injury. Not great news anyway, but harder still with Jermaine Gresham yet to practice this week because of the ribs injury he suffered when he was bodyslammed at the end of the Detroit game. So when there were multiple reports Thursday night the Cardinals were bringing in veteran tight end Jim Dray — nothing has been officially announced by the team — it made sense.

UPDATE: The Cards have officially signed Dray, cutting LB Philip Wheeler.

Dray was drafted by the Cardinals in 2010 and played the first four years of his career in Arizona. He was in Cleveland the two years after that and then spent time with the 49ers and Bills last year. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be active Sunday in Indy — he might just be in case if Gresham and Niklas can’t go. But figuring you want three tight ends active on game day, with two hurting (Ifeanyi Momah is OK), having one extra in case is smart.


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The past as future, and Friday before the Lions

Posted by Darren Urban on September 8, 2017 – 3:03 pm

The past is the past, and each team is different, and I get that. Matthew Stafford isn’t the same guy who was benched the last time the Cardinals visited Detroit in 2015, and that’s not just because he got a new mega-contract. The Cardinals aren’t the same team that floundered disappointingly in 2016.

But the past still can be fun to revisit. The last time the Cards opened up in Detroit was a memorable one for me. That was the day Anquan Boldin burst on the scene with his 10 catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns, back in 2003. How about you, Tyrann Mathieu? Do you have a memorable opening game at any point in your life?

“I always think about my rookie season and nobody thought I was going to be able to play, and I go ahead and make that big-time play against St. Louis,” Mathieu said. “That was one of those special moments for me.”

See, that moment, to me, does have some bearing. That Mathieu that burst on the scene in 2013? That Mathieu who dominated in 2015? That’s the guy we’ve been seeing in camp and the preseason. He’s a big reason why there is optimism about this defense. Sometimes, you look backward to see what is coming. With the Badger, that seems fitting as the Cardinals finally get started in the regular season.

— To me, the keys Sunday are fairly simple. Offensively, can you allow Carson Palmer to have time to throw the ball down the field once in a while, protecting against an at-best average pass rush? I know John Brown keeps saying he’s not totally healthy, but I think Smoke is healthy enough to make at least some sort of impact.

— Defensively, it’s that defensive line. If I had to guess, I’d guess Robert Nkemdiche wouldn’t play, but we are still two days away. In the end, with seven defensive linemen, at least one is probably inactive every week anyway, and I just don’t think they’ll risk Nkemdiche coming back too fast when there is confidence in the other guys. That said, they have to hold up. This defense has the pass rushers. They definitely have the playmakers in the secondary. But to get there, you have to lock down the run, something this defense has done well the last couple of years.

— Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, on newcomer Alex Boone – who was a right guard those years in San Francisco when playing with old/new teammate Mike Iupati, and then went to the left side after Iupati came to Arizona: “We all know that’s Mike’s position,” Goodwin said with a chuckle. “Kind of funny, I was talking to Mike, he said, ‘Alex called and he wants to come here but he’s not playing left.’ ”

Reminded me of Evan Boehm insisting he wasn’t going to be displaced on the right side either.

— Goodwin said Boone fits the Cardinals’ style, but “you know I don’t like anybody,” he added. “That’s just my nature. I won’t like anybody until I’m standing on the podium holding a Super Bowl trophy. Then I’ll start liking guys.”

— The Lions have a pair of former Cardinals tight ends. Darren Fells is there as a starter, a guy who will try and get going again after having a disappointing 2016 in Arizona, which is one reason the team let him leave in free agency. The Lions also signed Hakeem Valles to the practice squad this week. Any little edge, right?

— Speaking of tight ends, Goodwin chuckled again when asked if the tight ends would be more involved in the passing game. (In my opinion, I wouldn’t hold your breath.) Goodwin knows Jermaine Gresham got a big contract, and Troy Niklas has looked solid and stayed healthy. But as he as mentioned before, from a long ago warning from Arians in a meeting, “We pay Larry (Fitzgerald) a whole lot of money.”

— Stafford’s numbers since being benched in Week 5 against the Cardinals in 2015: 50 touchdown passes, only 15 interceptions, 67 percent completions and a 99.1 quarterback rating. Also, in what is coincidence, but take it for what it is worth, that 2015 Detroit game was a late kickoff – 4 p.m. locally, 1 p.m. in Arizona. It wasn’t early, like Sunday’s will be.

— Defensive coordinator James Bettcher, like the other coaches, is convinced Justin Bethel has earned that starting job. The reason, among others, is that health allowed him to practice.

“When you are finally healthy, and you get a whole offseason to work your craft, it does wonders how you progress as a player,” Bettcher said.

— Fitzgerald needs 82 yards receiving to become only the fifth player to have 1,000 receiving yards and eight touchdowns over a career in season openers. The fabulous four so far? Don Maynard, Andre Reed, Randy Moss and Jerry Rice.

— Finally, back to Mathieu. One of the things the Cardinals lost last year when the Honey Badger was not Badgeriffic went beyond dynamic play in the secondary. It lost an emotional jet engine, which Mathieu simply couldn’t be when he isn’t playing like he knows he can. That component is back.

“I try to feel out games,” Mathieu said. “Some games I won’t say a word. Other games I’m pretty well vocal. I won’t know until I actually get to game day.”

It’s meaningful. Said Patrick Peterson, “He finds ways to pass his energy to his teammates.”

See you Sunday. The regular season is here.


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Hall of Fame game aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on August 3, 2017 – 11:31 pm

It’s late here in Canton — past 2 a.m. — so this is going to be an efficient post, in part because it’s the first of five preseason games and yeah, the preseason. That doesn’t mean things of importance can’t happen. You wish the head coach wasn’t saying “fingers crossed” about an injury to the rookie who was already showing he could be that dynamic return man you had been seeking.

But it was hard not to notice quarterback Blaine Gabbert as the top story of the evening. With all the caveats of preseason/the Cowboys only using three defensive starters, Gabbert looked very good in completing 11-of-14 passes for 185 yards. What does this mean? It means that Gabbert succeeded when, frankly, he should have. Beyond that, we’ll still see.

The last time a new Cardinals QB played so well in the preseason opener? (It just happened to be the last time a Cardinal was going into the Hall of Fame, Aeneas Williams.) Logan Thomas completed 11-of-12 passes against the Texans, for 113 yards and a TD. We all know how that turned out. Now, Gabbert is not Thomas. As much as Gabbert has struggled, his NFL career was still light years better. But it’s a reminder to hold off on grand pronouncements.

— Speaking of the Hall of Fame, Kurt Warner had his party Thursday night, and both Larry Fitzgerald and Adrian Wilson made it over there to celebrate post-game.

— Logan really looked good as a return man. For a guy who hadn’t returned punts in college, he impressed.

— Tight ends Troy Niklas and Ifeanyi Momah also made some plays. Momah in the passing game, grabbing three receptions. If he is able to play special teams like he did last year before getting hurt, Momah has a place on this roster.

— Andre Ellington scored on a three-yard run that showed some grit, fighting his way between the tackles. If you recall, Bruce Arians said Ellington had to run tougher. The TD run was a good sign.

— Rookie safety Budda Baker made some plays. Arians praised Haason Reddick too.

— Robert Nkemdiche took a step forward again, playing much of the time in the first half. He busted up a couple of plays. He says being healthy, he feels more like himself. Again, he’s going in the right direction.

— The backups who played the offensive line for Gabbert mostly held up (from left tackle, Wetzel, Kaleb Johnson, Toner, Bergstrom, John.) The second-unit pass rushers who started didn’t generate enough pressure.

— The Cardinals return to practice Saturday (it’s closed to the public). Meanwhile, I’ll be here in Canton, covering Warner’s induction. Look for my big Warner-years-in-Arizona story tomorrow (today, here in the Eastern time zone).

UPDATE: Some are wondering why I didn’t bring up the missed field goals, and it’s simple. Phil Dawson didn’t kick. The punters, Richie Leone and Matt Wile, kicked, each missed a field goal, but the punter will only be kicking when it counts if Dawson goes down in a game. That’s unlikely to happen.

 


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After practice: Zamort time at cornerback

Posted by Darren Urban on July 28, 2017 – 5:09 pm

There is no new veteran cornerback yet. But who knows, maybe one will become inherently necessary sooner rather than later. Justin Bethel ended up sitting out practice Friday — he had a brace on his left knee — and interestingly, Ronald Zamort was the one in his place with the first unit and not Brandon Williams. Zamort actually had a decent camp a year ago, but he was cut and not brought back to the practice squad. (The Cardinals ended up bringing in a bigger defensive back, Trevon Hartfield, for the PS.) Zamort was re-signed to the practice squad later in the season after injuries. It’ll be interesting to see how he does in preseason games, and how Williams does as well.

(Not sure how Bethel was hurt. Bruce Arians didn’t mention anything at the lunch presser. Bethel did have a play Thursday when he and tight end Jermaine Gresham collided and seemed to bump knees/legs, but Bethel finished practice after getting up slowly.)

— Carson Palmer was technically back at practice but he threw little. Very little. He didn’t go in during any of the 11-on-11 work, and he didn’t throw much before that either. (Again, as Arians said earlier in the day, given the early start, all this work is “bonus” time for Palmer. I wouldn’t read too much into the inactivity.)

— Tyrann Mathieu had another pick in a drill, grumpy at one point that he was flagged for a hold he didn’t think he should have. Mathieu is trying to be more low-key, but he’s playing better and better.

— Practice ended with a pair of situational periods. The first started around the defense’s 30 with 22 seconds left and the offense down 6. That ended up all offense: A David Johnson TD catch for the first unit, a Troy Niklas TD catch for the second unit, and a clutch fourth-and-10 TD catch down the seam by tight end Ifeanyi Momah for the third unit.

— The other sequence started on the offense’s end of the field needing about 15 yards for a long field goal try and 19 seconds left. First unit’s possession ended with a interception by Antoine Bethea. The second ended with a Josh Mauro sack. The third unit succeeded, with a Carlton Agudosi catch setting up a 56-yard field goal by the ageless Phil Dawson.


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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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Floyd enters concussion protocol

Posted by Darren Urban on September 26, 2016 – 1:10 pm

Wide receiver Michael Floyd was taken off the field in the first half of Sunday’s game after the independent spotter decided Floyd’s banging of his head on the turf after going up for a pass warranted a concussion check. Floyd came out briefly before returning, having been cleared. But coach Bruce Arians said Floyd will enter the concussion protocol after he had a headache Monday.

“We just want to be very safe with him,” Arians said.

Floyd is off to a slow start this season, although he did have four catches for 65 yards Sunday (on 11 targets). But Floyd also wasn’t on the same page as Carson Palmer on a Palmer end-zone interception, with Palmer expecting Floyd to cut in front of the defensive back, Arians said. Floyd also dropped a probable first-down catch on the very first play of the game, which seemed to set a tone for a rough day.

It wasn’t the only injury news. Tight end Troy Niklas has a wrist injury “that could be severe,” Arians said, while punter Drew Butler is dealing with an ankle sprain and Achilles problem that will prevent him from punting. Arians said the Cardinals may have two punters active on Sunday so Butler can continue to hold for kicker Chandler Catanzaro.

floydhead


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