David Johnson thought he was done having to prove himself on the football field. His first two seasons in the NFL should have taken care of that.
It’s probably not a fluke, after all, when you set rookie records, get your cleats sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and then lead the league in touchdowns and yards from scrimmage in your second year.
But here he is, once again feeling like a relatively unknown commodity from the University of Northern Iowa, left with no alternative but to justify his worth all over again.
The Cardinals running back kicked off somewhat of a “Re-appreciation Tour of 2018” with a bang Saturday night, busting his two carries in the team’s preseason opener against the Chargers for 14 yards apiece. It was vintage Johnson, powering through the line of scrimmage with a burst and showing off his classic, jump-cut moves.
He ran angry and he ran angry for a reason.
“Yeah, that was the biggest thing,” he said. “I wanted to let everyone know I’m back. I think the team and the Cardinals’ fan base knows, but I think the biggest thing is letting everyone else know that not just that I’m back, but our offense is stacked – our front line, the receivers are stacked and the quarterback is doing good.”
Make no mistake: It’s personal. Johnson feels as if he’s been forgotten after missing virtually all of last season with a fractured left wrist. He entered the year ranked as the 12th best player in the league on NFL.com’s Top 100 list only to be left completely off of that same list this year.
Perhaps it was simply a case of out of sight, out of mind, but it clearly didn’t sit well with Johnson. A broken wrist, after all, doesn’t equate to a broken-down tailback. His omission from the Top 100 list didn’t help his argument, either, that he deserves a new contract now that he’s in the final year of his rookie deal with the Cardinals.
“I think that’s what it is,” Johnson said. “I didn’t play. I didn’t play last year. I was hoping that my production from my second year and what I did in the first year would help out, but the NFL is, ‘What have you done for me lately?’
“So hopefully I can prove it once the season starts.”
Cardinals coach Steve Wilks said he plans to increase Johnson’s workload during Friday night’s preseason game at the Saints, and although he wouldn’t say how much playing time Johnson will get, it’s another chance for the fourth-year pro to validate his request for a contract extension.
On that front, Johnson isn’t letting the possibility of a big payday consume him.
“I’m letting my agent handle that,” he said. “I really want to focus on football because I don’t want that to hinder my play on the field.”
Though there have been reports that negotiations between Johnson’s representatives and the Cardinals had gone stagnant, Johnson on Monday said his agents told him they continue to be in communication with the team and “hopefully, we get a deal done.”
That has left him feeling “very encouraged,” he said, adding, “I think that’s another reason why I want to prove that, as well, that I’m back 100 percent.”
No one is asking Johnson about his goals to rush for 1,000 yards and also reach 1,000 receiving yards this season. That’s because “everyone’s wondering if I’m going to be 100 percent,” he said. “Everyone’s worrying about the wrist, first off. But like I’ve been saying, it’s feeling great. I’ve done everything. I’ve been benching since April, I’ve been doing all the lifting and it’s feeling good.”
Wilks was thoroughly impressed with the little bit he saw from Johnson and the first-team offense Saturday night.
“It started up front,” he said. “There were a couple of plays I showed (the team) when we recapped the game. It was a great job of the offensive line coming off the ball, getting to the second level, and tremendous job on the outside with Larry (Fitzgerald) coming in, blocking the support player, the safety, so all 11 guys working together. We saw (fullback Derrick) Coleman going in there and did a great job for us just making contact on the linebackers, so again, it’s encouraging.”
Speaking of Coleman, Johnson said he is all in favor of Wilks adding a fullback to the Cardinals’ rushing attack. Coleman will get the bulk of the workload when Arizona employs a two-back set with a fullback. Elijhaa Penny has shifted to fullback as the backup.
“I love it,” Johnson said. “I had it in college. I was very excited to see Derrick Coleman and Eli at fullback and us bringing the fullback into the game because in college it worked really well. They know their main purpose on the team is to block, and Derrick and Eli, they’re going to get it done.”
Johnson, meanwhile, said he can’t wait to punish would-be tacklers himself. As long as he’s carrying a chip on his shoulder while he tries to prove his worth again and earn a new contract, he figures he might as well take it out on opposing defenders. It goes hand-in-hand with Wilks’ desire to establish a punishing ground game with Johnson leading the charge.
“The biggest thing is we want to show our dominance,” Johnson said. “It’s not necessarily ground and pound, but if there’s a guy in front of me and he’s trying to tackle me, I want to make him feel my power and make sure that in the fourth quarter he doesn’t want to tackle anymore.”
The Cardinals on Tuesday announced they have signed wide receiver Austin Wolf and released receiver Rashad Ross. Wolf, 6-3, 190 pounds, is an undrafted rookie free agent from Akron. In 42 games in college, he had 83 receptions for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns. Last year as a senior, he had 33 catches for 476 yards and five TDs.
Reach McManaman at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac and listen to him live every Tuesday afternoon between 3-6 on 1580-AM The Fanatic with Roc and Manuch and every Wednesday afternoon between 1-3 on Fox Sports 910-AM on The Freaks with Kenny and Crash.