"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: Chris Johnson
Position: Running back
Experience: 9th season
Contract status: 2016 season: $1.5 million (reportedly worth up to $3 million with incentives)
2015 season quick review: After rushing for 1,000 yards in each of the first six seasons of his career, Johnson took a step backward in 2014 with the New York Jets. Johnson made just six starts and notched 663 yards, and after the season, a player once considered one of the NFL's premier running backs was at a crossroads in his career. It took until training camp for Johnson to catch on with the Cardinals, and the team signed him on a one-year contract for under $1 million. When returning starter Andre Ellington was banged up in camp, Johnson quietly slid into the starting role and became one of the great surprises of the NFL season. Johnson started nine games for Arizona, and amassed 814 yards through the first 11 weeks of the season. Johnson was rolling along, but suffered a fractured tibia in late November against the San Francisco 49ers that sidelined him for the remainder of the year. At the time of his injury, Johnson ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing yards, but at 30 years old and nearing the end of his career, even a healthy finish to the season would have made it difficult for Johnson to sign a multi-year deal with a team.
Projected roster status: The Cardinals typically carry four running backs on the 53-man active roster, and barring a training camp injury or concerns about Johnson's fitness level, he should make the roster. Johnson will compete with Ellington, Stepfan Taylor and Kerwynn Williams for reps behind projected starter David Johnson.
Projected depth chart status: Even though Johnson earned the starting role last season, the Cardinals plan to move forward with second-year back David Johnson as the starter. David Johnson demonstrated great potential down the stretch last season, but the Cardinals' decision to bring Chris Johnson back suggests the team still plans on mixing him into game plans and taking advantage of his perimeter rushing skills. If all goes well, Johnson could find himself as the No. 2 back on the depth chart and serve as the main change of pace back throughout the season.
Position group analysis: If Johnson can give the Cardinals similar production to what he offered last season in a reduced role, the team's backfield will be in great shape. Arizona's hope is that David Johnson will have no trouble transitioning into the starting role, but if the Cardinals feel the need to monitor the number of carries he takes, both Chris Johnson and Ellington can give the offense versatile options on every down. The Cardinals are deeper at running back than they have been in recent years, but last season, the Cardinals saw first-hand how important it is to have a stable of backs ready to contribute as running back is one of the most physical positions in the NFL and both Chris Johnson and Ellington have struggled with injuries.
Moving forward: Running backs have been increasingly devalued in recent years as teams have realized the toll that playing the position takes on a player's body. The fresher the legs, the younger the player, the cheaper the contract, the more valuable the back. So it goes in today's NFL, and Johnson is one of many outstanding running backs who has faced these repercussions in his career. At this point in his career, it's unlikely Johnson will ever sign another multi-year contract, so his hopes are pinned on helping the Cardinals make and win a Super Bowl. Johnson's future with the Cardinals will be evaluated on a year-by-year basis, but as the organization saw last year, there is value in having a veteran running back with a chip on his shoulder on the roster.
Key skill: Perimeter Speed
Coming out of college, Johnson possessed electrifying speed and capitalized on that skill early in his NFL career. Johnson consistently reeled off big gains with the Tennessee Titans, and had a season-long run of at least 65 yards in four of his first five seasons. Though Johnson may have lost a step over the course of his career, his speed was still a plus for the Cardinals last season. With David Johnson expected to shoulder the load in between the tackles this year, Chris Johnson can keep his legs fresh and earn his paycheck by contributing on perimeter run plays.
Last season, Johnson only scored three touchdowns with the Cardinals, but one of his week seven runs against the Baltimore Ravens showcased the speed Johnson still possesses. In the image below, the Cardinals were targeting an off tackle perimeter run play to the right edge, and as you can see, the blocks aligned well for Johnson early in the play.
With plenty of experience locating outside running lanes, Johnson has developed a knack for planting his foot in the ground and finding cutback lanes. On this play, Johnson sees the defense over-pursuing toward the play side, and in the image below, you'll see Johnson decided to cut inside the right guard and hit the hole.
Johnson's speed to cut up inside the guard helped ensure he would turn the play into a positive gain, but his next decision is an example of why Johnson was considered one of the NFL's premier backs when he played with the Titans. Instead of fighting through the hole and trying to squeeze past the three defenders converging on him, Johnson reroutes his track and reverses the field. The over-pursuit of the Ravens' defense allowed Johnson to circle back and race toward the end zone untouched.
Even though the highlighted defender had the correct angle to track Johnson down around the five-yard line, Johnson was so much faster than the linebacker that he had no trouble turning the corner and racing inside the pylon.
This type of run is obviously an outlier as running backs rarely reverse field like this with success, but Johnson is an effective perimeter rusher the Cardinals should be able to count on in 2016. As David Johnson becomes the every down back, Chris Johnson can keep his legs fresh and use his speed as a weapon to help the Cardinals' on outside runs this season.
Overall value: Johnson's $1.5 million cap hit is a minimal risk for the organization, and the Cardinals will only pay Johnson more money if he meets incentives that merit more money. It's going to be considerably more difficult for Johnson to provide the Cardinals with more value than he did a season ago when his contract was worth less than $1 million and he started nine games, but Johnson's current contract is more than reasonable for a backup expected to contribute on a weekly basis. The only issue for the Cardinals is that both Johnson and Ellington are making a similar amount of money, so the organization is essentially paying two players to fulfill the backup running back role. To put the Cardinals' financial obligation in perspective, Ellington and Johnson both rank among the top 33 paid players at their position. However, the money committed to backups is somewhat offset by the fact the Cardinals are paying starter David Johnson a nominal sum because he's playing out his rookie deal, so once the season ends, we'll reconsider the overall value each back provided to the team relative to their contracts.