Cardinals do not see a hole behind David Johnson at RB
TEMPE, Ariz. — You could make a case that with David Johnson, the Arizona Cardinals have the best running back in football.
It’s what’s behind him on the depth chart that is a bit questionable.
With veteran Chris Johnson unsigned and unlikely to return, right now backing up the Pro Bowler are Kerwynn Williams, Elijhaa Penny and T.J. Logan. Andre Ellington is also around, though he has been working mostly at receiver.
Last season, David Johnson ran for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns while catching 80 passes for 879 yards and four scores.
Of the running backs not changing positions, only Williams has played in an NFL game, and he has 545 yards and three rushing touchdowns as well as five receptions for 33 yards in his career.
Reason for concern? Maybe, but as OTAs come to an end before giving way to minicamp and then, the final part of the offseason, there is a level of confidence in the team’s running back room after-Johnson.
“We’ll see,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians answered when asked about the team potentially having interest in a more proven, veteran back. “I don’t see a glaring need for one right now, but there’s always a possibility.”
The Cardinals reportedly had interest in LaGarrette Blount before he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, but with him off the table, the list of available veteran running backs is hardly inspiring.
So even if the Cardinals wanted to upgrade the position, it’s possible a combination of Williams, Penny, Logan and Ellington my be the best they can do.
The question is, can it be good enough?
“Me, personally, it’d be great to have Chris back, but our running backs we have are phenomenal,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “They’ve all got upside, they all can play.”
Including David Johnson, Goodwin believes “the sky’s the limit for that whole crew.”
The professed confidence might be some level of coachspeak, as it would not be the first time players or positions have been upsold only to then see them fail to make good on their promise.
It could also be the truth.
Arians likes to talk about how whenever the team has turned to Williams, he has done nothing but produce. The 5-foot-8, 198-pound fourth-year pro was the team’s only 100-yard rusher in 2014, and last season proved to be effective out of the team’s Wildcat formation.
Penny is a bigger player at 6-foot-2 and 234 pounds, and the last time anyone saw him was the final preseason game of the 2016 season, when he ran for 113 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. The undrafted free agent out of Idaho spent the rest of the season on the practice squad.
As for Logan, the fifth-round pick out of North Carolina offers outstanding speed, but at 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds does not have the build of an every-down player.
If nothing else, it’s an intriguing collection of talent.
“I’m always confident in myself, first and foremost, because without confidence you’re not really that good of a player, in my opinion,” Williams said. “I’m confident in the group as a whole. I think we have a good group of backs.
“Everyone knows their role and is ready to produce when given the opportunity.”
There is reason to question just how much of an opportunity there will be behind the team’s bell cow.
Of the 374 rushing attempts by Cardinals running backs last season, Johnson was the ball carrier on 293, or 78 percent. Ellington’s 34 carries were the second-most, with Chris Johnson netting 25 in an injury-shortened campaign.
Arians has said in the past he feels the 25-year-old Johnson is too young to overuse, and if he genuinely believes that, then there may not be much room for other runners.
But this is the NFL, and nothing is certain.
“This is a league about replacements, and if something happened to David, somebody would have to be ready to go,” Cardinals running backs coach Freddie Kitchens said. “We still used a lot of two-back sets and things of that nature, and David’s very diverse where he can move out wide and run routes from the wide receiver position, and then you need a running back in the backfield.”
There is only one David Johnson, though.
“Not just filling my role, but filling B.A.’s expectations is the toughest thing,” Johnson said. “Because being in this offense, we have to be receiver and running back — running back first, obviously.
“Those guys are actually really good at doing it, catching the ball and running the routes and stuff. They’ll be good.”
Arians believes the running backs after Johnson are more proven than not, pointing to the experience Williams and Ellington offer. He noted they at least know Logan can return kicks, while he called Penny the dark horse of the group, saying he liked what he saw from him all last season.
Penny compared his rookie year to a redshirt season in college, which allowed him to get used to the speed of the game as well as the terminology.
“And then by the time my opportunity comes around, I’ll be ready for it,” he said.
Penny said he spent the first year of his NFL career learning how to run routes as well as losing weight in hopes of being more explosive when he reaches the second level. He smiled when saying as a backup to Johnson he almost has to be just like Johnson.
Of course, no one would expect any of the team’s other running backs to be Johnson, who last season set franchise and NFL records. Then again, few expected Johnson to be the kind of player he was in 2016, so anything is possible.
“Kerwynn’s been playing before I was here and he’s been in the games, he’s been starting — he’s definitely been able to pick up the slack when I’m hurt or if anyone’s hurt,” Johnson said. “And then Eli’s learning so much from; from last year he’s getting better. He’s out there doing his job really well, he doesn’t have to think, it comes natural to him when he’s out there now and he’s running a lot faster.
“And T.J.’s picking it up pretty well.”
It’s that fact why everyone is preparing as if they will have a significant role in 2017.
“It does help the team, if that makes sense,” Williams said. “Everyone is staying on top of what they’re supposed to be doing so there’s no drop-off when you lose a player like that. It’s not exactly going to be the same, but when somebody is a big part of the offense like that you don’t want to drop off at all.
“It’s important for us to push each other and stay on the same page.”