Addition of Michael Carter has Cardinals run game set up for 2024

Jan 2, 2024, 1:38 PM | Updated: Jan 5, 2024, 1:16 pm

Michael Carter celebrates a touchdown catch in Philadelphia...

Michael Carter #22 of the Arizona Cardinals reacts after a touchdown catch during the third quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on December 31, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

TEMPE — Arizona Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort has continued to look for ways to enhance the roster anyway he can throughout his first year on the job.

But of the position groups that have seen the biggest face lifts from training camp to now, the running backs room may take the cake for most improved.

With the increased usage of midseason addition Michael Carter, Arizona’s run game led by starter James Conner has hit another gear.

“He has a lot of energy and juice to play football,” head coach Jonathan Gannon said Monday. “He loves the game of football, and I love that about him. He’s a competitor. He loves to practice. You can’t get him out of practice. He wants to take all the scout team reps and all the first team reps. He wants to practice.

“He’s extremely intelligent. He’s detailed in meetings. He’s kind of the perfect fit for what we’re doing. We want guys to be team first. All ball. That’s what he is.”

That’s not to say it didn’t take some roster gymnastics to get the room where it is today, though.

Entering training camp, all signs pointed to holdover Keaontay Ingram filling the No. 2 role behind Conner. Availability issues and poor play on Ingram’s part eventually led Ossenfort to bring in veteran runner Marlon Mack in addition to adding more on undrafted rookie Emari Demercado’s plate.

The 2023 Mack experience lasted mere days due to a torn Achilles. And while Demercado carved out a nice role for himself in pass protection and late-down situations, securing a consistent change-of-pace back to complement Conner was still needed.

When the Jets waived Carter, Ossenfort and Co. jumped at the chance to claim the back, the 2021 fourth-round draft pick who has a year left on his contract. Ingram eventually saw his time come to an end in Arizona with a midseason release.

While Carter hasn’t had a ton of time working in offensive coordinator Drew Petzing’s system, he has found a way to make an impact with limited touches.

In the five games he’s played for Arizona, Carter has averaged 7.3 yards per carry on his way to 132 yards on 18 attempts.

He’s added another 31 yards and a touchdown on eight catches (nine targets) as the running back continues to show off his shiftiness out of the backfield.

Last week’s 35-31 win over the Philadelphia Eagles was easily his best as a Cardinal.

Seeing a season-high seven carries, Carter ripped off 61 yards on the ground alongside Conner’s 128-yard effort. Carter turned his lone target into points, too, scoring on a six-yard catch that served as Arizona’s starting point in its comeback.

A trend is forming when both Conner — who has one year left on his contract — and Carter get touches on the ground.

In three of the four games Carter recorded at least three rushing attempts, Arizona’s run game posted no less than 150 yards. Arizona went 2-1 when that was the case.

A clearcut No. 2 option was needed to fully make this run game tick the way Petzing and the rest of the coaching staff envisioned entering the year.

Carter has filled the role and then some.

But what about Cardinals rookie RB Emari Demercado?

While Carter has brought added talent, energy and productivity to the locker room, Demercado’s pass protection and late-down role on the team cannot be understated.

“He didn’t play as many snaps yesterday, but he has a critical role (with) what we ask him to do, especially for a rookie,” Gannon said Monday. “He’s got a lot on his plate plus playing fourth down, too, so I thought (he and Carter) were both excellent.

“Obviously, James, the running game goes through him. Then Mike came in and made some plays. He made some guys miss, had some explosive runs, had the touchdown catch and broke a tackle right in there. He was a great acquisition, but that whole room I expect for those guys when their numbers are called to produce and that’s what they’re doing.”

In addition to his solidified role on offense, Demercado has proven to be an effective option when his number is called.

Across 13 games played (two starts), Demercado recorded 58 carries for 284 yards and two touchdowns on top of 21 receptions for 119 yards.

A full NFL offseason fine-tuning his craft as both a blocker and offensive threat could give Arizona a legit triple threat in the running backs room.

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