Monthly Archives: September 2017

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TEMPE, Ariz. — J.J. Nelson stood in front of his locker this week, surrounded by people with cameras and notepads who wanted to know if he could dunk, why he quit football (and then returned), and how he knows if he can get a step on a cornerback.

The deeper they prodded into the life of the Arizona Cardinals’ speedy, game-breaking receiver, the more Nelson smiled and nodded.

If it was up to him, the cameras would have found someone else to focus on and the reporters would pepper one of his teammates with questions. Being the center of attention is not who Nelson is — it never has been — but after turning in the third-best game of his career Sunday in Indianapolis with five catches for 120 yards and a touchdown, Nelson has been thrust into the spotlight. It’ll only get brighter with the expectation that he’ll continue to be a pillar of Arizona’s passing game with John Brown’s return from a quad injury still unknown.

But Nelson, who rarely turns down an interview request, stood patiently, answering questions all week with his Alabama charm — a mix of humility and humor with a large helping of stories.

“I’m not too much of a talker,” Nelson said. “I just like to sit back and observe. That’s pretty much it.”

Maybe publicly.

“Quiet? I don’t see J.J. as being quiet,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “He’s very talkative. He may be quiet around you guys but he’s talkative in the locker room, especially when I’m making fun of him. I don’t see that. I don’t see that side of him.”
J.J. Nelson ranks tied for ninth in the league with 163 receiving yards through two games. AP Photo/AJ Mast
Nelson’s teammates give him his fair share of flak for being quiet.

Fellow wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald tries to get Nelson to open up, to talk more, especially on the field and especially when it’s loud.

“It’s been a little crazy,” Nelson said. “They’ve been on me every day about not talking so I just let my play talk for the most part. I’ve been like that since I was young.”

He’s ninth in the NFL with 163 receiving yards this season and has become a fantasy star in the first two weeks of the year.

Thus far, Nelson has shown an improved understanding of how to beat press coverage and get past cornerbacks, coach Bruce Arians said.

“He’s always had it,” Arians said. “And he’s gotten better and better. The bigger ones … Pat [Patrick Peterson] gives him a little problem but there aren’t many Pats around.”

Heading into this weekend’s slate of games, Nelson is ranked in the top 30 in receptions, yards before first contact per reception, air yards per target and first downs.

Palmer, who worked out with Nelson away from the Cardinals’ facility this offseason, said there’s more than meets the eye with Nelson, who’s built a reputation since he was drafted in 2015 as a fast, downfield threat but in reality has been more of a short-yardage receiver. Of his 55 career receptions, 38 have traveled in the air 15 yards or less, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“He’s not a one-trick pony,” Palmer said. “It seems like he may be but he catches the ball really strong. You’re talking about his slight build but he catches the ball with really, really strong hands. He’s really smart. He sees defenses unfold. He’s got a lot of plays where they’re built, post-snap reads where he runs one of three routes so he’s really, really intelligent.”

Palmer described Nelson like this: When the lights come on, Nelson makes plays.

“He is a threat, there’s no doubt about it but he can also throw the brakes on you and run comebacks and digs,” Palmer added. “He’s fluid in and out of the top of his routes so he’s a complete receiver in my eyes.”

Which, when you find out that Nelson restarted football nine years ago after a brief hiatus, makes Nelson’s story all the more remarkable.

Nelson quit football in middle school in his hometown of Midfield, Alabama, a southwest suburb of Birmingham. He doesn’t consider himself a quitter, but he looked at the lack of opportunities coming his way and realized his ability and potential in basketball may have been a better fit. He became the team MVP and won all-region honors in basketball.

But then he started seeing point guards who were 6-foot-4 and the realization that a career in basketball at 5-10 may not come to fruition began settling in. Nelson took stock of his athletic options. Track or a return to football sounded like the best routes for him. He did both.

Nelson won two state titles in the 100 meters and one in the 200. A year after returning to football as a junior, he was named the Metro-West Player of the Year by The Birmingham News and landed a scholarship to the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“Like I said, here I am,” Nelson said.

Nelson didn’t look like an NFL prospect coming out of college in 2015. He was short. He weighed 160 pounds. And he had calves that weren’t much thicker than most branches. Nelson may look slight of build, but he can bench 225 pounds — which he did recently, Palmer said — and he can dunk a basketball, which he began doing as a ninth grader.

But he had one thing NFL coaches say they can’t teach: speed.
Nelson taught himself how to be fast. His uncle used to line up Nelson against his older cousins to race in the street. It didn’t matter if Nelson was wearing shoes, was barefoot or had socks on, he raced. He didn’t beat his cousins but those races helped build his own speed, which he later used to beat other kids growing up.

That speed has led to a promising NFL career.

“He was a very, very fast guy that could change direction easily and stop easily,” Arians said. “A lot of very fast guys — you go way back to [Olympian] John Carlos and all those guys that tried to play football, they couldn’t stop and they couldn’t turn. He did it fluidly. He had a great high speed.

“Those traits usually show up as a pretty good wide receiver and he’s doing a good job of catching balls over the middle now. Just don’t try to put him in too much harm’s way.”

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TEMPE, Ariz. — When the Arizona Cardinals woke up Friday morning, they still didn’t know which Indianapolis Colts quarterback they would be facing Sunday.

Though that presents a few subtle problems in developing Arizona’s game plan, it hasn’t stymied the Cardinals’ preparation as much as one would think.

“They don’t change their offense,” coach Bruce Arians said. “We don’t change our offense when [backup quarterback] Drew [Stanton], is playing so you’re getting ready for the offense they have on tape. They’re not, all of a sudden, going to run and shoot or anything. They’re throwing it to T.Y. [Hilton], they’re throwing it to [Jack] Doyle, and they’re handing it to Frank Gore. Stop them.

“They don’t change anything for the quarterback.”

Arizona compared the offensive plays the Colts ran in the preseason and in Week 1 to what they ran last season, when starter Andrew Luck was healthy. Not much, if anything, has changed — even when the Colts played three quarterbacks in the preseason.

“The concepts are the same, the formations are, for the most part, the same,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said.

“We’re preparing for a team that formations you to run the ball, who’s going to shift in motion, who’s going to use two tight ends or move one tight end around in the backfield.”

What could change, however, is who’s running that offense and how well they know it.
The Cardinals’ pass-rushers would have to adjust to a more mobile Jacoby Brissett if the Colts pick him as Sunday’s starter. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
The Colts will either start Scott Tolzien, last week’s starter, or Jacoby Brissett, whom the Colts acquired from the New England Patriots in a Sept 2 trade. Both played last Sunday in Indianapolis’ 46-9 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, although Brissett came in for the final nine offensive snaps.

The fact that Brissett will have had two weeks in the playbook Sunday isn’t lost on Arizona’s defenders.

“You hear things,” Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea said. “He doesn’t know the entire playbook.”

Both are similar for the most part, big-armed pocket passers. What separates the two is Brissett’s ability to thrive on the run and extend plays with his feet, Bettcher said. But defensive tackle Frostee Rucker pointed out that the biggest difference between the two is Tolzien’s intimate knowledge of the Colts’ offense.

Where not knowing who’ll take the field does impact the Cardinals is how their pass-rushers prepare.

“Sometimes you can’t rush as aggressive when you have some of those quarterbacks that are very fast,” outside linebacker Chandler Jones said. “But then again, you do have to be aggressive.

“I have to think differently with different quarterbacks. As far as a pass-rusher, you have to think very differently.”
Tolzien put enough on film Sunday in his 41 snaps against the Rams for the Cardinals to get a well-rounded read on who he is as a quarterback. It’s Brissett, however, who presents a bit of a challenge from a scouting perspective.

Arizona has dissected his nine snaps Sunday — he completed 2 of 3 passes for 51 yards — and have also referred heavily to the tape of Brissett’s two starts in New England last year.

But until the Colts make a decision — if that even comes before Sunday — the Cardinals will continue to prepare three ways: what the Colts do as an offense, how Tolzien runs it and then how Brissett runs it.

“We certainly have to be prepared for those things,” Bettcher said. “Then, when the different quarterbacks are in the game, what are those other components that might show up.”

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DETROIT — Arizona Cardinals RB David Johnson did not break his wrist in his team’s 35-23 loss to the Lions, and the team believes the injury is a “bad sprain,” ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports. Johnson will undergo an MRI on Monday.

A source told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that Monday’s MRI will determine whether Johnson misses a “few weeks” or “half the season or more,” in a worst-case scenario.

Johnson appeared to have hurt his wrist after a 24-yard catch in the third quarter, but Arians said the injury happened when Johnson fumbled the ball on the only play of Arizona’s next drive. Johnson left the game and did not return.

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For most of Sunday’s game, the Cardinals looked like they were knocking the rust off. Add to that now fresh questions about David Johnson’s wrist.
“We’ll find out the severity of that,” Arians said after the game.

The results of Johnson’s X-rays came back negative, a source told ESPN, confirming a report by Pro Football Talk. Arians declined to confirm the report.

“I don’t know anything about X-rays yet,” he said.

Johnson struggled to get going all game. He finished with 23 rushing yards on 11 carries and six receptions for 68 yards, giving him 91 yards from scrimmage. He started the previous season with more than 100 yards from scrimmage in his first 15 games.

This is the second straight game in which Johnson suffered an injury. He left the season finale in January with a sprained MCL.

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The Arizona Cardinals must cut their roster to 53 by 4 p.m. ET Saturday, Sept. 2. Here’s a final 53-man roster projection:

QUARTERBACK (3): Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton, Blaine Gabbert

Once Bruce Arians named Drew Stanton the backup last week, the rotation was set. It’s highly unlikely the Cardinals release Gabbert, which means they’ll be willing to carry three QBs on the 53. However, the question becomes whether or how often he’ll be active on game day.

RUNNING BACK (4): David Johnson, Kerwynn Williams, Chris Johnson, Andre Ellington

Whether to keep four or five running backs will be either the toughest or second-toughest decision the Cardinals make during cuts because of T.J. Logan. He’ll end up on injured reserve before the season as he continues to recover from a dislocated wrist, which could open the door for Ellington to make the roster. If the Cardinals choose to keep four with Logan, they’ll be thin at backup help for David Johnson.

WIDE RECEIVER (7): Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Jaron Brown, J.J. Nelson, Chad Williams, Britt Golden, Jeremy Ross.

The other tough decision for the Cardinals will be whether to keep six or seven receivers. Golden has been consistently good during camp but Ross is an asset on special teams that may make him too valuable to release.

TIGHT END (4): Jermaine Gresham, Troy Niklas, Ifeanyi Momah, Ricky Seals-Jones

There’s a chance the Cardinals could go with three tight ends but the injury history of Niklas makes it likely they keep four. Seals-Jones has shown progress during camp as a converted receiver, especially as a blocker.

OFFENSIVE LINE (8): A.Q. Shipley, Evan Boehm, Mike Iupati, D.J. Humphries, Jared Veldheer, Cole Toner, John Wetzel, Dorian Johnson

Position flexibility will go a long way for the Cardinals this season and will be why Toner and Wetzel will be valuable pieces to the offensive line. Johnson is still a project but he’ll get reps during practice that could help bring him along. Don’t be surprised if Arizona ends up keeping nine offensive linemen, with rookie Will Holden as the final member of the room.

DEFENSIVE LINE (7): Rodney Gunter, Josh Mauro, Robert Nkemdiche, Corey Peters, Frostee Rucker, Olsen Pierre, Xavier Williams

This is a rotation the Cardinals like. Pierre was one of the players that had training camp buzzing this year. Williams has continued to grow into his own and develop as a solid rotational back-up. Keep an eye on Ed Stinson if the Cardinals go with eight defensive linemen, but his injury history had him on the outside looking in.

LINEBACKER (8): Deone Bucannon, Karlos Dansby, Haason Reddick, Josh Bynes, Scooby Wright, Markus Golden, Chandler Jones, Kareem Martin.
Arizona can get away with keeping three outside linebackers because of Reddick’s experience as a defensive end in college. Bynes impressed enough during camp in a short amount of time to make him a suitable option to back up the inside linebackers while Bucannon continues to get ready for the season. Wright is too good of a special-teamer for Arizona to let go.

SECONDARY (9): Patrick Peterson, Justin Bethel, Brandon Williams, Tramon Williams, Budda Baker, Antoine Bethea, Tyvon Branch, Tyrann Mathieu, Rudy Ford.

Harlan Miller will end up being the odd man out of the secondary room this season as the Cardinals commit to Ford, a rookie draft pick.

SPECIALIST (3): Phil Dawson, Aaron Brewer, Richie Leone

Even though Matt Wile punted for the Cardinals last year, Leone could end up taking his job after a preseason of solid punting.