Daily Focus: Did Arizona benefit from Detroit drafting Ameer Abdullah?
Editor’s note: Every day in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest NFL news and translate what it really means for each team involved.
The summer is typically slow for NFL news, as most people around the league are on vacation. Luckily for NFL junkies Amazon and NFL Films teamed up to produce All or Nothing — a series that followed the 2015 Arizona Cardinals with unprecedented access. If you’re a fan of Hard Knocks, then there is a good chance you will enjoy the opportunity to see that type of access for a full season, rather than just a training camp.
It was also a great showcase for the Arizona Cardinals — a team that is returning most of its key players and our pick for the best team in the NFC. That’s where we’ll start Sunday’s Daily Focus.
1. Did Arizona benefit from Detroit drafting Ameer Abdullah? All or Nothing shows the Cardinals’ brass on the phone with former Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah during the 2015 NFL draft. The Cardinals are telling Abdullah that they are going to be picking him with their next selection. However, the Lions call Abdullah and interrupt that conversation, and subsequently draft Abdullah right before the Cardinals can. The range of emotion shown by GM Steve Keim while this unfolds shows how chaotic draft rooms can be, and this was one of the more interesting moments that NFL executives have ever let cameras film.
The cameras show Cardinals’ executives re-group and draft a running back with receiving skills in the third round in David Johnson out of Northern Iowa. However, by revealing their interest in drafting Abdullah, the question arises — how did Abdullah and Johnson compare to each other last year? Did the Cardinals get the same type of production from Johnson that the Lions got from Abdullah?
The two rookies’ rushing numbers in 2015 were very similar, with Johnson getting the slight statistical edge. Abdullah rushed for 597 yards on 143 carries, 4.2 yards per carry average with two TDs. Johnson rushed for 581 yards on 125 carries for a 4.6 yards per carry average with 8 TDs. Abdullah had five runs over 15 yards or more and forced 12 missed tackles. Johnson had six runs of 15 yards or more and 18 missed tackles which was six more than Abdullah and on 18 less carries.
Here’s how all of last year’s rookie running backs graded:
The Cardinals coveted both players due to their ability to catch the ball. Abdullah caught 25 passes, for 183 yards and one TD and forced seven missed tackles. Johnson caught 61 passes for 534 yards, four TDs and forced 17 missed tackles. Johnson led all rookie running backs with a 2.12 yards per route run while Abdullah’s 1.08 yards per route run ranked No.7 among rookies running backs. Both Abdullah (+2.4) and Johnson (+3.9) had positive receiving grades as rookies, but Johnson was more productive than Abdullah as a pass-catcher. Johnson also finished with a higher overall PFF grade with a +6.4 compared to Abdullah’s +1.1.
It’s far too early to declare one back better than the other after just one season. However, it is quite clear that the Cardinals didn’t lose production in drafting Johnson after missing out on Abdullah. Johnson appears poised to having a breakout year in 2016.
2. How veteran free agents helped fuel the Cardinals’ 2015 success: Another All or Nothing storyline that helped shape the 2015 Cardinals’ season is how Keim and his player personnel department acquired solid production and return on investment from signing veteran free agents. They signed Chris Johnson, and after Andre Ellington was injured, Johnson went on to start nine games and lead the team in rushing with 814 yards on 196 carries before going down with an injury himself.
Keim signed Dwight Freeney late to bolster the Cardinals’ pass rush and Freeney ended up leading the Cardinals in sacks, even though he didn’t start playing for them until Week 6. Freeney had eight sacks, four hits and 19 hurries rushing from the right side of the Cardinals’ defense and his 15.0 pass rush productivity rating from the right side ranked No. 2 among all 3-4 outside linebackers. Freeney also made some of the biggest and most timely plays the Cardinals had in 2015. Signing the team’s sack leader and leading rusher off the street highlights the Cardinals’ pro personnel process.
3. Jets first-rounder Darron Lee could have a limited role in his rookie season: The first branch off the Bruce Arians’ coaching tree is Todd Bowles in New York. Recently Darryl Slater of NJ.com was asked about the competition at the inside linebacker position in Bowles’ defense, and specifically if rookie Darron Lee could take over Erin Henderson’s spot.
Slater replied: “The Jets really like Erin Henderson at the inside linebacker spot next to David Harris, so I don’t expect Lee to simply take the job from him. For Lee’s rookie season, I envision him being a situational sub packages player who can use his lateral speed and athleticism to help the Jets in pass coverage.”
Coach Bowles likes athletic middle linebackers who can cover and blitz, and Lee fits that physical mold. Bowles has also been known to play sub-packages more than base defense at times so Lee is a player that could get more playing time as the season moves along. Unfortunately, Lee he never finished with a positive coverage grade in the two years of our college grading. Lee finished 2015 with a -0.2 pass coverage grade which ranked No. 193 among FBS linebackers in 2015. Lee is an effective pass-rusher and did have a very good +8.2 pass-rush grade last season, so watch out for him getting sent on the A-gap blitzes Coach Bowles loves to employ.