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 every player at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Player: David Johnson
Position: Running back
Experience: 3rd NFL season
Contract status: 2017-$799,843, 2018-$889,344
2016 season quick review: Johnson was one of the most electric players in football last season, taking the league by storm in his sophomore campaign as the Cardinals’ starting tailback racked up over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and established himself as one of the most complete backs in the NFL. Even as the Cardinals struggled through a 7-8-1 season, Johnson was the one consistent force for an offense that benefitted significantly from his NFL record 15 consecutive games posting at least 100 yards from scrimmage. Perhaps the most remarkable part of Johnson’s season was that it was his first as a full-time starter, as he didn’t take over as the Cardinals’ featured back until week 13 of his rookie season. Even though Arizona brought back veteran Chris Johnson last season, there was no question David Johnson was going to be the driving force of the team’s offense from the outset of training camp, and he delivered by putting together one of the most prolific seasons in franchise history.
Projected roster status: If we were to rank each player on the Cardinals’ roster’s individual odds of making the team this fall, not even Larry Fitzgerald or Carson Palmer would have a higher ranking than Johnson. The Northern Iowa product is that critical to the team’s foundation.
Projected depth chart status: After touching the ball nearly 400 times a season ago, Johnson has created so much separation from his peers on the Cardinals’ depth chart that there’s bound to be multiple lines in between his name at the top and whoever the Cardinals decide to use as their secondary back in 2017. Unlike many NFL teams which ask backs to share the load, the Cardinals know it’s Johnson and then everybody else.
CardinalsSource.com analysis: What makes Johnson such a valuable asset to Arizona’s offense? There’s no shortage of traits that Johnson possesses that most NFL backs would kill to acquire, but perhaps his best quality is his versatility. In an era where backs are increasingly specialized and rotated based on situations, Johnson is the rare player who excels at all aspects of the running back role, which is why he’s so tough for defenses to defend. At 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds, Johnson has the size to burst through the line of scrimmage on short yardage situations, but he also has the speed to break away from defenders at the second level and outrun his competition down the field. After nabbing 80 receptions a season ago, Johnson also proved he was the best pass-catching running back in the league, which allows the Cardinals to split him out wide and create mismatches against safeties and linebackers. Additionally, Johnson is also the best blocking back on the Cardinals’ roster, as he’s fundamentally sound and creates a wide base that’s difficult for opponents to displace upon contact. Head coach Bruce Arians was outspoken at various points last season, suggesting he’s harder on Johnson than the rest of his players because he has such a high ceiling. Even after some of Johnson’s best games, Arians offered corrections for him and indicated Johnson often left yards out on the field. If there’s more untapped potential inside of Johnson, it’s going to create issues for the rest of the NFL, because he’s already well on his way to becoming one of the most dominant players in the sport.
Overall value: Johnson’s emergence during his rookie year and his breakout season in 2016 have set the stage for him to become one of the most valuable players in the sport over the next two seasons. Because Johnson was a third-round draft choice, the Cardinals won’t pay him more than $900,000 in either of the next two seasons, which makes Johnson one of the league’s best bargains. Though the shelf life on running backs in the NFL gets shorter every season, Johnson has some transcendent qualities that could make him one of the priciest running backs in the league when his rookie contract does expire after the 2018 season.