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What’s Up With David Johnson?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Cincinnati Bengals Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

One of the Arizona Cardinals’ most fascinating draft stories came in 2015 when Terry McDonough’s phone call to Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah was interrupted by the Detroit Lions—-caught brilliantly on film by the “All or Nothing” crew.

I do not even have to look back at my 2015 Senior Bowl notes, because I remember verbatim everything I wrote about Abdullah and Northern Iowa’s David Johnson.

What I fell in love with about Abdullah was his quick feet—-and I was totally on board with the Cardinals in targeting the Senior Bowl MVP (7-73 rushing, 4-40 receiving) as their 2nd round pick. Abdullah reminded me a lot of the Bengals’ quick and versatile RB Giovani Bernard.

I was very intrigued with David Johnson, primarily because of his prowess as a receiver. His 19 yard rushing TD in the Senior Bowl was the first score of the game, but it was a later 19 yard reception and run up the right sideline that showcased how elusive he is in the open field. He finished the day rushing 10 times for 49 yards and catching 1 pass for 19 yards,

My primary concern about Johnson was his upright running style—-which I feared would lead to an influx of injuries in the NFL—-and potential ball security issues.

I can remember plain as day—-writing about David Johnson during that Senior Bowl—-”better equipped to play WR than RB in NFL.” I had a 3rd round grade on him and was very excited that the Cardinals drafted him—-little did I know then—-that Abdullah would fail miserably in Detroit and David Johnson would quickly emerge as a 1st Team All Pro in 2016. Unreal!

As we saw in 2016, David Johnson was a freakish force of nature. Even though he brought his upright style of running with him to the NFL, he excelled at breaking long runs because of his slalom-like maneuvers in and around defenders, his mind-blowing jump cuts and his jaw-breaking stiff-arm. Defenders were bouncing off of him like pinballs. It was like watching a video game.

But—-there were two recurring issues with David Johnson—-(1) missed assignments and (2) fumbles. Yet, it was hard to quibble with Johnson’s occasional mistakes while he was amassing over 2,000 yards of total offense (1,239 yards rushing + 879 yards receiving) plus 20 TDS (16 rushing, 4 receiving) in 2016.

Cardinals’ fans might remember that Johnson’s 2016 season catapulted him into the #12 most highly rated player in the NFL: (don’t miss clicking on this video)

In retrospect, if David Johnson never recaptures the magic of his 2016, a great deal of his success can be attributed to Bruce Arians, who rode Johnson fast and furiously much the way Red Pollard rode dark horse, Pimlico Special champion Seabiscuit to national stardom in 1938.

Johnson himself often refers back to how Arians cussed him out time and time again each day on the practice field—-you know, there are some players who respond very well to that kind of attention—-and David Johnson surely was one of them in 2016.

Sadly, Johnson’s historic season crashed to an abrupt halt in Los Angeles during the final game of the season when Johnson’s left knee was nearly bent in half:

Amazingly the knee injury was only a Grade 2 MCL sprain. However, the injury looked so gruesome that David Johnson’s wife. Meaghan, implored her husband to quit football. At the time, Johnson shared his wife’s concerns on Arizona Sports radio and basically laughed it off.

“She always worries about me,” he said. “Every time I get hit, she’s always cringing. Every time I come home with bumps and bruises, she says, you can stop whenever you want to.”

At the time, Meghan was going though a very stressful pregnancy—-and two weeks after the January 1st game in which her husband was injured, she delivered David Johnson Jr.

This past May, Meghan and David added Londyn Elisabeth to the family.

In David Johnson’s much anticipated return to the field in 2017, his season lasted only 3 quarters of the first game versus the Lions, thanks to a dislocated left wrist. Johnson tried to play through the pain, but he fumbled twice and wasn’t able to secure the ball.

By 2018, his 4th season and contract year, Bruce Arians had retired and despite missing 15 games in Arians’ final year, Johnson and his agent lobbied for a new, lucrative multi-year deal that would pay him in the neighborhood of $13M a year.

The Cardinals had every reason to be leery about giving Johnson a 3 year $39M contract with $31M in guaranteed money, because that is virtually the exact same contract that Steve Keim gave to former 3rd rounder S Tyrann Mathieu as Mathieu headed into his 4th season coming off his season ending ACL injury.

Johnson was so adamant about the contract that in what seemed very uncharacteristic of his persona as the “Humble Rumble,” he decided to hold out from the team’s mandatory mini-camp. That decision certainly didn’t help first year head coach Steve Wilks, nor the new OC Mike McCoy.

The holdout worked. Johnson got the deal he wanted.

With Arians gone and Mike McCoy showing little understanding of how to maximize Johnson’s diverse talents, Johnson never looked like his 2016 self. He looked especially deliberate and tentative—-nary a slalom or patented jump cut to be found—-and all in all it was a wasted season for everyone on the Cardinals’ woeful 32nd ranked offense.

The lowlight of the season came on a 4th and 1 call near midfield in a close game versus the Bears—-when David Johnson was getting lectured on the sidelines for missing a block on the previous play while Chase Edmonds was being tackled for a 2 yard loss.

But, this year, with the arrival of Kliff Kingsbury and the Air Raid, Cardinals’ fans have been expecting to relish in cheering for a rejuvenated David Johnson. Yet, much to most everyone’s surprise and dismay, Johnson again has looked deliberate to the point of appearing heavy and slow.

In the middle of the Cardinals’ 3 game winning streak, Johnson suffered an ankle injury and proceeded to watch Chase Edmonds rush for 126 yards and 3 TDs versus the Giants—-and then after Edmonds was injured and Steve Keim made a trade for RB Kenyan Drake—-Johnson watched Drake rush for 110 yards plus 52 yards receiving and 1 TD versus the 49ers.

Thus, one would think that when Johnson returned to action versus the Bucs that he, like Edmonds and Drake, would hit the holes with added burst and urgency—-except, quite the opposite as Johnson managed to look slower and more deliberate than ever.

And then came Johnson’s fumble in the red zone at the end of an 8 yard catch—-ironic in the sense that it helped Bruce Arians, the one coach thus far who has known how push Johnson’s buttons, win the close game for the Bucs.

Since the fumble, Johnson spent the rest of the Bucs game on the sidelines, and despite what was considered his best week of practice last week, he played sparingly in Santa Clara and never touched the ball once.

Following the game, Meaghan Johnson went on social media to state what “a waste of talent” it is to have David Johnson in uniform on the sideline. And then, Johnson summed up his feeling in a Tweet in one word: “Welp.”

So—-what gives?

Some of the local pundits are convinced that Kliff Kingsbury was deliberately punishing Johnson for his lackluster effort in his most recent games.

However, one of the biggest surprises about Kingsbury’s Air Raid is how little he substitutes—-if you have noticed—-it took several games and Johnson’s injury before Chase Edmonds got his first steady diet of touches. And Kenyan Drake has run so hard and well that Kingsbury is sticking with him and what works.

Kingsbury assured everyone this week that David Johnson is still a big part of the offense and that roles can change form week to week, etc, etc.

Kingsbury also knows that Chase Edmonds should be ready to return to action following the bye week. Edmonds was providing the kind of bang-bang running that Kingsbury favors in his offense—-as had Kenyan Drake, even more so to a degree.

Realistically, David Johnson should now be RB3 on the depth chart—-which begs the question of whether Kliff Kingsbury can and should use Johnson primarily as a receiver. Kingsbury, like Arians, has raved about Johnson’s receiving skills.

Arians said early on about Johnson that he could be a top 5 WR in the NFL. That said, Arians is often a master of hyperbole—-let’s not forget that Arians also insisted in 2016 that Johnson could have a Hall of Fame career—-but if Arians is correct about Johnson as a WR—-the Cardinals need to find out asap.

With 5 games remaining it would be in the best interest of the Cardinals to get the most the can out of David Johnson—-in an effort to know just how well he fits in the offense moving forward—-and in an effort to re-kindle Johnson’s trade value.

Otherwise—-the Cardinals could wind up eating $31M the exact same way that ate Tyrann Mathieu’s $31M after 2 lackluster seasons. Like Yogi Berra says, it would be “deja vu all over again.”

Johnson’s base salary for 2020 is $10M and his roster bonus as $1M—-the dead cap figure for the Cardinals is $16.2M.

Right now it would be difficult to imagine any team taking on Johnson’s salary.

Except—-perhaps the Bucs and Bruce Arians—-who with a trade might be able to get Johnson to rework his contract with them.

C Ryan Jenson is owed $10M in base salary next season—-perhaps the Bucs could offer Jenson for Johnson—-and who knows—-then Arians could add UFA C A.Q. Shipley to their mix at center.

The other Bucs’ player in that $10-11M ball park is LB Lavonte Davis—-but it would be hard to imagine they would dangle him in a trade, their highest graded (PFF grade of 82.6) defensive player, unless the Cardinals would be wiling to do a total blockbuster with the Bucs involving both David Johnson and Patrick Peterson.

Jenson and Davis for Johnson and Peterson? That would be a rare trade—-but who knows?

Putting all trade talk aside—-what if Arians was right and David Johnson has the skill to be a top level WR???

The sooner the Cardinals find out, the better.