"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: John Brown
Experience: 3rd NFL season
Contract status: 2016: $747,425, 2017: $837,725
2015 season quick review: After exploding onto the scene as a rookie in 2014, Brown exceeded expectations once again during his second NFL season as the speedy wideout from Pittsburg State nabbed 65 passes for 1,003 yards. Over the course of the season, Brown and fellow wide receiver Michael Floyd battled for reps when the Cardinals used two-wide receiver sets, and it was Brown who won quite a bit of playing time which is reflected in his overall statistics. Even though Brown may not have the same size or blocking abilities that Floyd does, he more than makes up for it with his downfield speed and ability to go up and challenge to catch the ball at its highest point. Brown's speed is one of the Cardinals' greatest offensive weapons, and it was on display throughout last season as he averaged 15.4 yards per catch and hauled in passes of at least 40 yards in five of the 15 games he played in. Above all, the Cardinals enjoyed Brown's consistency, as he caught three passes in every game in which he was not battling an injury.
Projected roster status: With the nominal amount of money the Cardinals owe the former third round draft pick and the production Brown has given the team's offense over the last two seasons, there's no doubt Brown will make the roster as he represents one of the best "bang-for-your buck" players in the organization.
Projected depth chart status: Much like last season, Brown will battle with Floyd for playing time when the Cardinals use two-receiver sets. Both players are more than capable of holding down the No. 2 receiver position on the majority of NFL rosters, and Brown may merit consideration as a No. 1 by the end of this season if his production continues to climb. With Floyd's contract set to expire at the end of this year and top receiver Larry Fitzgerald entering his 13th NFL season, the Cardinals are likely hoping both Brown and Floyd take ownership of the No. 2 spot and continue to battle throughout the season.
Position group analysis: With the Cardinals' top five receivers all returning to the fold, Arizona is in a unique position in which a number of players including quarterback Carson Palmer, Brown and Fitzgerald can all improve upon career-best numbers from a season ago. The Cardinals won 13 games and appeared in the NFC Championship game, but continuity is a game-changer in a league where free agency and trades almost always force slight changes on a season-to-season basis. With Brown, Fitzgerald and Floyd, the Cardinals have a bevy of options who Palmer will throw to at any point during the game, and that makes a significant difference for a team on third and medium and third and long situations. All the stars are aligning for a huge season from Arizona's receiving corps, and time will tell if the unit lives up to its billing.
Moving forward: Even though Brown has been in the league just two seasons, the Cardinals probably already envision him as a long-term contributor within the team's offense. Arizona has two years left on Brown's rookie deal to receive maximum value from one of its best offensive assets, but once those two years are up, the Cardinals could see the value in offering Brown a contract worthy of a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver to keep their downfield threat in the fold. A lot will change over the next two years as both Palmer and Fitzgerald will make decisions about retirement, so it's difficult to forecast the complexion of the Cardinals' offense down the line when Brown's contract does eventually come up for renewal.
Key skill: Deep ball
The Cardinals have plenty of reason to be confident in their offense, but few teams demonstrate as much confidence in their quarterback and receivers on a series-by-series basis as Arizona. Regardless of where the Cardinals are on the field, Palmer has shown a willingness to chuck the ball deep because his receivers have proven their ability to go up and come down with a "home run ball."
In our evaluation of Palmer's key skill, we chose a play that showcased his impressive ability to beat coverages over the top, but this is only possible with receivers like Brown. We're going to revisit that play to show why the two have such an impressive chemistry on these types of passes, and to highlight Brown's rare skill set for a receiver.
In the image below, we see a situation where Palmer and Brown are able to identify man coverage at the line of scrimmage. With the ball aligned at the far hash mark, Brown is lined up inside the numbers which gives him plenty of room to develop his route toward the outer part of the field and run under a pass if Palmer decides to float it up.
The key to capitalizing on man coverage in this situation is Brown's ability to beat the cornerback off of the line of scrimmage. The sooner Brown beats his man, the quicker Fitzgerald can draw the attention of the safety to ensure the coverage over the top is 1-on-1 with no help. As you'll see below, Brown had no trouble racing past the cornerback who ultimately decided to forego press coverage at the line of scrimmage and run with Brown down the field.
At the bottom of your screen, Brown is already in a foot race by the time Palmer decides to throw, which is a victory for a receiver. Brown has the advantage of knowing where his route is headed, and he already enjoyed the pre-snap advantage of knowing he could bend his route outside the numbers because space on his side of the field was not an issue.
Eventually, Palmer drops the ball into a wide open Brown's hands around the 50-yard line, and Brown is able to scamper down inside the red zone to set up a Cardinals' score. Having Brown's elite speed on the field already changes the way defenses must play against Arizona's other receivers, and it often times forces safeties to stay over the top. With Brown's speed and Fitzgerald's route running abilities, defenses have trouble keeping up with both players on the same play, and it leads to a lot of man coverage that the Cardinals can pick apart when the offensive line gives Palmer the proper amount of time to throw.
With another season in the Cardinals offensive system and the team returning nearly every critical piece at the offensive skill positions, it's easy to see why teams must respect the deep threat when Arizona takes the field.
Overall value: With Fitzgerald's massive contract marking the second-largest cap hit of any NFL receiver and Floyd playing out the final year of a rookie contract that makes him among the top-20 paid receivers in the league, it's going to be difficult for the Cardinals to maximize the value of their receiving corps because the team has such a significant amount of money committed to the unit. Fortunately for general manager Steve Keim, that's where John Brown fits in, as the Pittsburg State product is entering the third year of a rookie contract that won't pay him more than $1 million annually in either of the next two years. If Brown secures another 1,000-yard season or manages to improve upon his 65-reception total from a season ago, Brown would likely give the Cardinals one of the most valuable receiving options in the NFL relative to his contract, which is especially important in a season where the team has little wiggle room in its salary cap.