The Arizona Cardinals established themselves as a powerhouse in the NFC last season with a franchise-best 13 wins. Coming off a trip to the NFC Championship game, the Cardinals are poised to make another serious Super Bowl run.
Potential championship teams rely on veteran leadership, which the Cardinals have in quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, but also the emergence of young talent.
General manager Steve Keim has made a living off finding that young talent deep in the draft, the most recent being running back David Johnson and wide receiver J.J. Nelson. Both of which appear on Football Outsiders’ top-25 breakout prospects of 2016.
The top-25 list is constructed by scouting, statistics, measurables, context, expected role and information from sources. This year’s list is restricted to players drafted in the third-round or later who entered the league between 2013 and 2015, have played fewer than 500 career offensive or defensive snaps, have not signed a contract extension and are 26 years or younger.
Johnson has been one of the most talked-about young talents in the league this offseason. Experts have thrown every prediction at the 24-year-old from finishing top-five in rushing yards to being a high-end fantasy draft pick.
Football Outsiders’ Rivers McCown is firmly behind all of these projections, as he listed Johnson as his No. 1 breakout prospect.
You may remember Mr. Johnson as a major swing factor for your fantasy football league last winter. His advanced statistics certainly backed up the touchdowns: Johnson finished fourth in rushing DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) and eighth in DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) in his rookie season. And while he’s not a dumbfoundingly obvious talent like Todd Gurley, that’s the reason the Cardinals were able to get Johnson in the third round. At 6-foot-1, 224 pounds, Johnson is built to be a workhorse back. He also made outstanding plays as a receiver, finishing sixth in receiving DYAR among running backs and averaging 4.0 more yards after the catch than expected given where he caught those passes. The usual caveats about running backs apply — high attrition, increased role-splitting — but Johnson sure looks like a franchise running back as we enter 2016.
Johnson averaged 88.4 rushing yards in the final five games of last season, highlighted by his 187-yard performance in Philadelphia in Week 15. The running back was a magnet for the end zone, scoring a total of 13 touchdowns in 2015, which tied for fifth-most in the league.
Johnson is expected to share the workload in the backfield this season, but head coach Bruce Arians expressed his confidence in the young running back in training camp.
“He was another one of those very, very mature rookies that you knew you weren’t going to overload him, but you still didn’t want him to get put into a situation that was going to overload him mentally and hurt somebody else,” Arians told reporters. “He’s done a great job of preparing, now it’s like he’s a five-year vet. He’s done it all; he’s still progressing as a receiver, more and more things you can do with him.”
Another Cardinal that is progressing as a receiver is J.J. Nelson. The 24-year-old out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham didn’t have as big of an impact as Johnson did last season, only compiling 11 receptions for 299 yards and two touchdowns.
However, McCown listed Nelson as the No. 24 prospect and he believes the wideout has an opportunity to make a name for himself.
Last year, Nelson was a situational speedster, the guy that rocketed through the middle of the defense to catch Carson Palmer bombs. This is the sort of skill set that, in a good offense, leads to 23.7 yards per reception. Nelson’s future in the league is harder to forecast. He’s tiny enough (listed 5-foot-10, 160 pounds) that it’s hard to buy him as an outside receiver. He came out of UAB with almost zero ability to make tacklers miss. Head coach Bruce Arians is big on the receiver’s future, calling him “unique” at tracking the ball over his shoulder. It’s possible that Arians seems similarities to a player the Colts drafted while he was in Indy: T.Y. Hilton. For the near future, Nelson is behind three great receivers on the depth chat. To become more, he’ll need to show more ability to deal with the physical grind of the league. He’ll also need to get better after the catch — he gained more than three yards after the catch on just two of his receptions.
The “three great receivers” ahead of Nelson on the depth chart, which include Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown, could go down to one sooner than he might expect. While Fitzgerald has given no indication about retiring, the soon-to-be 33-year-old might call it quits if the team wins a championship. Floyd is in the final year of his contract, so the possibility exists he could be wearing another uniform in 2017.
Nonetheless, Nelson is continuing to learn and develop behind these receivers, and understands the most important goal for this team is to win.
“I’m all about winning,” the receiver told Bertrand Berry on Off the Edge on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Monday. “At the end of the day, if it’s my job to line up wide and run all the way down field full speed to get Larry wide open underneath I’ll take that, as long as we win and as long as we get those rings on our finger at the end of the day — that’s all I’m looking forward to.”
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