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PFF: Cardinals’ David Johnson a candidate for comeback player of 2018

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) stretches out with teammates during a voluntary team activity Thursday, April 19, 2018, at the NFL football team's training facility in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Was it the regular NFL cycle of injuries or just a bad year of luck?

Whatever it was, injuries to All-Pro-caliber players in 2017 have lent the 2018 season plenty of storylines. Among those who saw their years end on a disappointing note was the Arizona Cardinals’ David Johnson, whose third NFL season lasted just 11 carries and six receptions.

But the running back is expected to be back in a big way under first-year head coach Steve Wilks.

A new group of quarterbacks, an offensive line that will need to jell and a receiver group that doesn’t have a clear No. 2 option will put a lot on Johnson.

And when it comes to protecting those quarterbacks in terms of health and aiding the receivers with his own set of hands, few NFL players at any position could make more of an impact in 2018.

That’s why Pro Football Focus listed Johnson third among the top five candidates to win the 2018 NFL Comeback Player of the Year award.

David Johnson’s dominance as a receiver in 2016 really shouldn’t be overlooked. So good in fact that he won our award for the Best Receiver in the NFL, with a PFF grade of 92.6 as a receiver, and 87.8 overall. The former third-round draft pick out of Northern Iowa forced 27 missed tackles on 80 receptions, and another 44 on his 293 carries, making a huge impact in the Cardinals running and passing game. His workload was huge for a running back as his 964 snaps on offense the second-most we’ve seen from a running back since 2006. Only Matt Forte’s 998 snaps in 2014 rank higher than Johnson in 2016. The key to Johnson being so important and so good as a wide receiver is how he can be utilized all over the field, and back in 2016 there were plays where he lined up out wide and made key receptions to keep drives alive. Assuming he is fully healthy, there’s no reason not to expect the Cardinals offense to run through him again in 2018, and don’t be surprised if he quickly becomes Josh Rosen’s top target when he assumes the starting job at quarterback.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but here’s what we do know:

Johnson is the focal point of offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s offense. With veteran Sam Bradford expected to start at quarterback ahead of Rosen, it’s a sure bet Arizona’s run game will aim to keep defenses out of aggressive pass-rushing mindsets.

When the team does have to pass, Johnson will not only provide quick escape options for whichever quarterback might be under pressure but act as a legitimate threat as a receiver.

From what Wilks has voiced publicly, the ground game is going to be the Cardinals’ friend with the 224-pound back working behind a revamped line and potentially even fullbacks, something Arizona didn’t utilize under former head coach Bruce Arians.

In short, Johnson will get a lot of touches in a lot of different ways.

What’s the running back’s competition for the comeback player of the year honor in 2018? Let’s just say it’s an impressive list of talents.

Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers are all returning for season-marring injuries.

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