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Cardinals Running Back Outlook: A Complicated Dilemma

Contract talks are in the works for Kenyan Drake

Pittsburgh Steelers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

All eyes will be on the Arizona Cardinals and their running back situation this offseason. David Johnson was once considered the face of the franchise but seemingly lost reps and his starting job in favor of Kenyan Drake in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.

Johnson came into the league by storm after being selected in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He had over 1,000 scrimmage yards and scored 13 total touchdowns as a rookie. He then had a monstrous sophomore season, eclipsing over 2,000 scrimmage yards and scored 20 touchdowns.

After suffering an ugly knee injury in 2016, season-ending wrist injury in 2017, and an ankle injury this past year, it looks like Johnson is a shell of what he once was. There is no doubt that the former Northern Iowa product is still a talented running back but the injury history and his lack of fit within the offense does not bode well for his chances to remain in Arizona.

He finished the 2019 season with 345 rushing yards, 370 receiving yards, and six total touchdowns.

With Johnson’s contract fully guaranteed in the upcoming season, the Cardinals will not release him.

Now there are a couple questions that remain:

What will they do with David Johnson?

There are only two options on the table. The Cardinals will either keep him on their roster or trade him. Johnson is the fourth-highest paid running back in the NFL and it will be difficult to find a trade partner willing to endure his fully guaranteed contract. In order for a trade to happen, the Cardinals would have to agree to pay off some if not most of his 2020 salary. That way, both sides would be saving cap space in the process. The best fit for him would be with the Buccaneers, where he would reunite with head coach Bruce Arians. They certainly have the cap space to pull off a trade, with a projected $79.9 million.

I have said this before but some players need more time than others to learn a playbook. Johnson was not great but was solid at the start of the season. He is still one of the best receiving running backs in the NFL. If he returns, Johnson could be more productive in year two with Kingsbury.

The Cardinals would save $9 million in cap space if he is release in 2021.

Will Kenyan Drake be re-signed?

There is a really good chance the Cardinals will re-sign Drake, after he sparked the run game with 643 rushing yards on 5.2 yards per carry through eight games with the team. What I love about Drake is not only his skills as a ball carrier or receiver out of the backfield but his work as a blocker. When you can do all the little things right, it goes a long way towards gaining the trust of your coaches and teammates. He has done just that.

He is a talented running back that will get paid this offseason but not as highly as Johnson or Todd Gurley. I could see Drake getting a multi-year contract around $5 to $7 million per season.

“I made it clear we would like to have him back,” Keim said on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

The team certainly got the most out of the Drake trade, after only giving up a conditional 2020 late-round pick to the Dolphins.

Interpret Drake’s tweet however you want.

If the Cardinals do in fact re-sign Drake, David Johnson’s time with the team will likely come to an end. Of course there are scenarios where both could be on the roster at the start of the 2020 regular season, but the chances are slim at best.

While Steve Keim deals with this dilemma, let’s not forget that they still have another quality running back on the roster in Chase Edmonds. The former fourth-round pick in 2018 single-handedly carried the offense in the win over the Giants last season with 29 touches for 150 yards and three touchdowns. He averaged an impressive five yards through 60 carries on the season. D.J. Foster is an impending free agent.

We cannot deny Kenyan Drake’s talents and his fit within the offense. But, the David Johnson and Chase Edmonds duo was quite effective in the beginning of the season prior to their injuries. There remains a possibility for the Cardinals to add to the position via free agency such as Raiders’ RB DeAndre Washington, who played under Kingsbury at Texas Tech. The draft is also loaded in the position, with second-day talent like Cam Akers and Zack Moss.

Contracts aside, the Cardinals have a lot of top talent at running back and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.