Arians: David Johnson is too young to overuse, likes current RB depth
PHOENIX — When a team has a weapon like David Johnson, it would seem irresponsible not to use him.
Yet, the running back’s workload in 2016 was substantial, and some eyebrows were raised when he suffered a knee injury in a Week 17 game that had very little on the line.
While the injury looked bad at the time, it turned out to be an MCL sprain that Johnson has by now pretty much recovered from.
“He’s still too young to overuse,” Arians said Wednesday during NFC Coaches Breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore. “But again, we want to limit the number of carries.”
Arians pointed to Johnson’s 293 number of carries, saying it was not too bad, though combined with his 80 receptions the second-year pro by far led the NFL in touches.
“His number of touches, because he’s such a dynamic pass receiver, I don’t want those to go down at all — I want to have 30 touches out of him, if possible, because that’s going to be a lot of offense,” Arians said. “Because when he’s got his hands on the ball, either as a wide receiver coming out of the backfield, in the slot, and running, that’s a lot of potential offense for us.”
This is not the first time Arians has expressed a desire to get a running back around 30 touches, though the 6-foot-1, 224-pound Johnson seems better suited for the workload than Andre Ellington, who is 5-foot-9 and 199 pounds.
Johnson earned his first Pro Bowl nod after tallying 2,118 scrimmage yards, which was a franchise record and league-best mark, as well as 20 total touchdowns. He was also the first player in NFL history to record at least 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his team’s first 15 games, and likely would have made it a full 16 had he not left the last game in the second quarter.
Just 25 years old, there is little reason to think he will not continue to be a dominant offensive weapon. But if Arians does want to try to limit his carries some, as of now there is not much in the way of proven depth behind him.
Ellington, who was a starter at one time, is moving to wide receiver, while veteran Chris Johnson is currently a free agent.
If the season started now, the running back room would include Johnson, Kerwynn Williams and Elijhaa Penny.
“I’m fine right now,” Arians said. “I think Kerwynn has proven, every time he plays, he gets 100 yards — everybody says he’s too small, he just gets 100 yards every time he steps out there.”
Buoyed by the team’s use of the Wildcat formation, Williams ran for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries last season, with 60 yards and one score on 12 totes against the Rams after Johnson was hurt.
“That Wildcat stuff — not one of those plays was blocked right; he just made somebody miss and went and got 20 yards,” Arians said. “That’s his ability, so he’s a really good little pass blocker, ain’t afraid to stick it in there.”
Williams has been with the Cardinal since 2014, and in his time with the team has run for 545 yards and three touchdowns on 98 carries, giving him an average of 5.6 yards per run. In 2014, he produced the team’s only 100-yard rushing effort in Week 14 against the Chiefs.
But if Williams at least has some track record, there is little sense of what Penny can provide. An undrafted rookie free agent out of the University of Idaho in 2016, he ran for 113 yards and one touchdown in the preseason finale against Denver, but was stashed away on the team’s practice squad the rest of the season.
The Cardinals signed him to a futures contract in January, and Arians remains excited about his potential.
“I think Elijhaa Penny has got a lot of talent; he learned what it’s like to be an NFL player now,” he said. “Slim him down — he’s 235, might be a little too high for him — he’s got real light feet and great hands, so if we can make him a little more shifty.”
After those two, Arians said they could always add a running back in the draft or free agency, and besides, they could always move Ellington back if need be, and “Chris will make his decision sometime soon, and we’ll see.”