The Arizona Cardinals dropped their preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders 31-10 on Friday as turnovers marked an overwhelmingly sloppy performance from Bruce Arians' squad.
The Cardinals left their offensive and defensive starters in for just a series, while the Raiders' starters barely lasted longer than that. Nevertheless, Friday's opener offered a pivotal opportunity for younger players and some of the more inexperienced veterans on both rosters to showcase their skill sets in a live-game situation in hopes of earning a roster spot.
While it's unlikely any bubble players can etch their names with permanent marker on the Cardinals' 53-man roster after Friday's contest, a handful of players made strong impressions and appear poised to build off of their efforts in training camp.
On the flip side, Arizona's backup quarterbacks, first-year right tackle and rookie cornerback struggled in meaningful minutes, which should give the Cardinals' coaching staff and management issues to contemplate as the franchise travels to San Diego for joint practices with the Chargers this week.
Though it's important not to read too much into preseason results, we can evaluate individual player performances, and here are 10 Cardinals who stood out against the Raiders.
Running back David Johnson: Johnson registered three carries for 31 yards, but it was more than enough to prove he should be able to pick up where he left off a season ago. Johnson unleashed a 23-yard gain on an ankle-breaking run that wasn't blocked particularly well, and that's what makes Johnson so special. Arizona's linemen won't need to be excellent run blockers for Johnson to have a great season because he's more than capable of picking up extra yards on his own and shaking off defenders in a myriad of ways. Another welcome sight for the Cardinals tonight was Johnson's blitz pick up on a long pass from Carson Palmer to Michael Floyd as pass protection is an area of Johnson's game he hoped to improve on this offseason.
Tight end Troy Niklas: Niklas was a standout on just about every rep he played on Friday, save for a holding call that negated a Stepfan Taylor touchdown run in the third quarter. Niklas was outstanding as a run blocker, and caught two passes for 44 yards including a 32-yard reception in which he pummeled a defender in his way. The knock on Niklas in his first two NFL seasons has been his inability to stay healthy, but if he can continue to practice and play the way he has through training camp, he stands to see a significant increase in his playing time this season.
Running back Andre Ellington: Ellington played so well early in the game that the Cardinals' coaching staff gave him the starter treatment and pulled him before halftime. Ellington has been somewhat of a forgotten man with Johnson and Chris Johnson earning the lion's share of the reps last season, but he brought back memories of the 2013-2014 version of himself when he ran for 600-plus yards in each season. Ellington rattled off a 35-yard run that showcased impressive patience and vision, and also bulldozed his way toward the goal line and into the end zone on the team's lone touchdown run of the evening. Ellington was stopped just short of the goal line, but kept his knee above the grass and pumped his feet to secure the score on an impressive display of determination.
Center Evan Boehm: Boehm hasn't drawn the type of praise fellow rookies Brandon Williams and Marqui Christian have from the Cardinals' coaching staff this preseason, but he had the best overall performance of any Arizona draft pick on Friday. With Earl Watford and Taylor Boggs both sidelined due to injury, Boehm knew he would play at least three full quarters and quite frankly, he needed the reps. Centers mature under pressure, and Boehm demonstrated he belongs at the NFL level tonight with above-average pass blocking skills and some nice run blocks that stood out. It's harder for centers to stand out because they're not playing against elite edge rushers or pulling very frequently on run plays, but Boehm looked especially good tonight on a pair of screen plays the Cardinals ran. During his senior year at Missouri, Boehm struggled mightily on screens because his mobility was limited due to an ankle injury. Friday, he showed no signs of the wear and tear and was spotted 10-to-15 yards downfield on multiple occasions, which is a step forward in terms of his overall progress. It wasn't a perfect effort for Boehm, but it was an important learning experience.
Linebacker Chris Clemons: Clemons has had a relatively quiet preseason as the converted safety shifted to inside linebacker to add depth behind Deone Bucannon and hasn't made much noise with his play in practice. Clemons has held off veteran free agent Donald Butler who was expected to contend for a roster spot after signing with Arizona in late July, and on Friday, we learned why Clemons is still slotted ahead of Butler on the depth chart. Clemons brings a drop-the-hammer mentality to the position, and plays very much in the mold of Bucannon. Early in the game, when cornerback Cariel Brooks had a Raiders' receiver tied up, Clemons came in and delivered a crushing hit that jarred the ball loose and resulted in Arizona's only turnover of the night. Aside from that play, Clemons had two other tackles, including one on the Raiders' first series where he made an excellent run read and stuffed a ball carrier near the line of scrimmage.
Defensive lineman Rodney Gunter: With Corey Peters and Frostee Rucker sidelined tonight, Gunter figured to see extensive playing time and he performed well with both the first and second team defenses. Gunter ended up with three tackles, but was also a presence in a handful of pass rushing situations which is impressive considering he typically aligned on the interior of the defensive line in at the 3-technique and 5-technique spots. On multiple occasions, Gunter ripped right past Raiders' offensive linemen and disrupted timing in the backfield, which is all you can ask of an interior lineman. When Chandler Jones and Calais Campbell face double teams this season, Arizona will need Gunter to handle and dominate one-on-one situations and on Friday, he inched one step closer to proving he'll be able to accomplish that task.
Quarterbacks Drew Stanton, Matt Barkley: The Cardinals' quarterback play suffered on Friday evening as Stanton overthrew at least three of his four incompletions and Barkley completed just one-third of his passes. Stanton put two balls in jeopardy and had one bad interception while Barkley tossed a red zone interception and missed too many open receivers. Arizona is one play away from needing a backup quarterback to keep its Super Bowl hopes alive, and neither Stanton nor Barkley looked comfortable, even when given time, against Oakland. Stanton's overthrow over the middle with a high safety that resulted in an interception was bad for a number of reasons, but it's a throw a player with his level of experience should't contemplate making in the first place. Barkley's interception came a play after a Taylor touchdown run was negated by Niklas' hold, and it's the type of throw that will discourage Arians from keeping three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster.
Cornerback Brandon Williams: From the first play of the game, Raiders' quarterback Derek Carr targeted Williams and Oakland had no trouble giving the Cardinals' rookie a baptism by fire. Williams was out of position at least three times on the first two series, and even Raiders' backup Matt McGloin picked on Williams on a first quarter touchdown pass. The Cardinals have raved about Williams' progress throughout camp, but we said when he was drafted and have reiterated throughout training camp that he doesn't track the ball well and hasn't demonstrated an ability to go up and make plays in the air. Against Oakland, Williams' positioning didn't even given him the opportunity to make plays in the air, because he was too far behind receivers in coverage. Can Williams play in the NFL? Eventually. But is he looking more and more like a potential early season liability? Absolutely.
Right tackle D.J. Humphries: Multiple media outlets reported Palmer praised Humphries for his work on Friday against Khalil Mack, one of the most skilled and feared pass rushers in all of football. Palmer, though, is a savvy veteran who knows he needs to remain positive if he wants his right tackle to hold his confidence. In many of Humphries' matchups, he appeared overwhelmed and out-gunned, and didn't seem to be able to stick to his fundamentals. He gave up ground too quickly on the edge, and disengaged too early from Mack and the other Raiders' edge rushers he faced. After watching Humphries closely during the first two weeks of camp, he appears to have made strides and his footwork has improved considerably in just a short period of time. However, he showed a regression on Friday night, which could be worrisome for Arizona moving forward.