"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Player: David Johnson
Position: Running back
Experience: 2nd season
Contract Status: 2016 season: $708,843, 2017 season: $799,843, 2018 season: $889,344
2015 season quick review: As the Cardinals' third round draft selection out of Northern Iowa, Johnson began the season as a rotational player and played behind late free agent signee Chris Johnson. Johnson had never endured the rigors of an NFL season, and didn't have more than eight carries in a game until the 13th week of the season. The load was light for Johnson early on, which allowed him to stay fresh, learn the offense and develop into a menacing force in the Cardinals' backfield down the stretch. When Chris Johnson went down with an injury in December, David was ready to step in, and over the next three games, Johnson recorded three consecutive 90-plus yard efforts including a 29-carry, 187-yard performance against the Philadelphia Eagles. Johnson flashed enough potential during those outings to earn the respect of the coaching staff and the label of "starter" entering 2016.
Projected roster status: The Cardinals like to keep four backs on the 53-man roster and keep all four active on game days. Under head coach Bruce Arians, the Cardinals actually had five backs on the active roster in 2014, but labeled Robert Hughes a fullback so technically only four running backs appeared on the roster. As the projected starter, Johnson will obviously make the active roster, and likely won't have to assume the special teams roles the third and fourth running backs typically fulfill.
Projected depth chart status: Johnson will enter fall camp as the starting back after taking off late last season. The Cardinals are excited about Johnson's potential, yet still brought back the elder Johnson who entered 2015 as the starter (Chris) as insurance in the backfield.
Position group analysis: The Cardinals are flush with talent in the backfield as the top three backs in David Johnson, Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington have all started games for the organization within the last two seasons. At the time of his injury last season, Chris Johnson ranked fourth in the NFL in yards, and if he returns to full health, could provide the team with an excellent change of pace back. Ellington has a scat-back type skill set and the Cardinals can get creative with how they deploy him. The primary questions surrounding this group are whether or not David Johnson has the durability to handle a full season in the NFL averaging more than 20 carries per game, and whether there are enough snaps to go around to keep every back satisfied.
Moving forward: The Cardinals want and expect Johnson to carry the torch this season as the second-year player will have enjoyed a full offseason to rest his body, improve his strength and prepare for the workload of a starting back. Johnson is in the second year of a four-year rookie contract, so the team has the luxury of paying one of its premier offensive players under $1 million annually. If Johnson lives up to the expectations the organization has set forth for him, we expect Johnson to become one of the faces of the franchise as the team will soon be forced to say goodbye to aging veterans like Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald. Though the sample size from last season is small, Johnson flashed the type of physicality and speed that should help him become a dependable starter for at least the next few seasons.
Key skill: Finishing plays
In week 15 of last season, Johnson had some of the freshest legs of any skill position player in football, as the 6-foot-1 bruiser was hitting his stride after back-to-back 90-yard performances. The combination of Johnson's determined running style and poor tackling from the Philadelphia Eagles gave way to one of the Cardinals' iconic plays of 2015, as Johnson scampered 47 yards for a second quarter touchdown that personified the concept of finishing a run.
In the image below, we see Johnson pursued in the backfield by an Eagles' lineman, and the outside rushing lane shut down by Philadelphia's perimeter and contain players.
At this point, Johnson does what running backs are taught to do and that's turn upfield and pick up as many yards as possible before the defense converges. Johnson's ability to stop on a dime and plant his feet helped him maintain his speed, and the Cardinals' offensive linemen approached the second level to clear the way for their back. Nevertheless, five or six Eagles' defenders had a chance to bring Johnson down, and he appeared to be wrapped up in the image below.
The key for a running back wrapped up by a defender is to keep driving their feet forward to create leverage, and Johnson demonstrated this skill throughout the final weeks of last season. Even when defenders had Johnson in their grasp, he used his frame to bulldoze defenders and fall forward instead of backward, which adds a yard or two on to many runs. In this situation, Johnson drives his feet so hard that he eventually escapes the grasp of a defender and continues racing down the field.
Moments later, Johnson appears to be wrapped up by another defender, but Johnson has a downward tilt with his shoulder pads, momentum from keeping his feet driving and breaking a tackle, and his inside arm in a strong position to wall off the defender with his hands. In a flash, Johnson uses all of his force to drive the defender off of him, and then tiptoes his way into the end zone on a play that showcased the type of determination teams love to see out of running backs.
One of the most challenging aspects of playing running back in the NFL is maintaining the ability to finish plays in this manner over the course of a 16-game season, because the hits are harder and they're coming from players who put themselves in better positions to drive ball carriers backward. If Johnson can maintain his physicality and stay durable late into next season, finishing plays could become his signature skill.
Overall value: If Johnson develops into a 1,000-yard rusher and demonstrates the abilities of an every down back throughout next season, it will be hard to point to a player who brings the Cardinals' a better value. Johnson is into the second year of a cheap rookie deal that keeps him in the fold through 2018, and excellent running back play often comes at a cost in the NFL. As teams recognize the wear and tear players have taken at the position, durability is becoming more critical. Neither Ellington nor Chris Johnson has been able to stay completely healthy as the featured back, so Johnson's health will play a pivotal role in determining the overall value he provides over the next few seasons.