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Former Cardinal Larry Centers: David Johnson is ‘before his time’

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)

Larry Centers knows what it’s like to be ahead of his time. Arguably, nobody has replicated the type of production by the former Phoenix and Arizona Cardinals fullback.

Centers, who played for the Cardinals from 1990-98, still leads all NFL running backs in career receptions (827). Some may have more yards and touchdowns on those touches. Most have more rushing yards than Centers’ 2,188 for his career.

Yet few have the perspective of a player whose talents and roles challenged the definition of his respective position on the field, and Centers sees current Cardinals running back David Johnson in a similar fashion.

“David Johnson is going to be — as history will prove — he’ll be before his time as a player in this league,” Centers said Wednesday while joining Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

Johnson, who missed all but a part of one game last year due to a wrist injury, challenged the traditional role as a running back in 2016. The former receiver, who blossomed as a running back in college at Northern Iowa, rushed for 1,239 yards and caught 80 passes for 879 more yards in his second NFL season.

Entering 2017, Johnson set a personal goal to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 more receiving during his third season, but a wrist injury suffered in the first game of the year doused that possibility.

Healthy leading into this season but under a new coaching staff, it’s back to the drawing board.

“I think it’s an achievable goal for David Johnson given his talent level, there’s no doubt in my mind about that,” Centers said of Johnson chasing the 1,000/1,000 club, which has only been reached by former Ram Marshall Faulk (1999) and former 49er Roger Craig (1985).

“I think in today’s game, there’s so much of a committee — offense by committee setup with, you know, you have to spread the ball around in order to be effective in today’s league. I predict in the future that the league will be comprised by guys that have a home position but they’ll be required to play multiple spaces in the offense. It’s inevitable, in my opinion.”

Johnson fits into that mold. Under former coach Bruce Arians, he caught balls out of the backfield but also lined up like a slot receiver, using his skillet and familiarity with route-running to challenge defenses.

In limited preseason action this past month under first-year coach Steve Wilks and new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, Johnson wasn’t used much in the passing game. The Cardinals’ first team unit didn’t show much as it was.

Johnson, however, promised he’d be used in the passing game.

“He’s such a threat in everything that he does, and he can make people miss and he’s so versatile that, quite frankly, (opponents) have to guess right sometimes in order to stop him,” Centers said. “I think he’ll be probably one of the top backs in the league, no doubt, this season, in terms of yards from scrimmage.”

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