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Counting On John Carlson Comeback

Posted Aug 11, 2014

Cardinals hope tight end can overcome injuries and extend hot start in desert

Tight end John Carlson had a touchdown catch in the preseason opener, but it was called back because of penalty.

John Carlson made a play that didn’t count within a game that didn’t count.

Some would call that worthless, but Cardinals coach Bruce Arians knew its impact as he grinned from ear-to-ear when discussing it on Monday.

The veteran tight end chewed up No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney with an out-and-up route in the preseason opener against the Texans on Saturday night, finishing it with a 13-yard touchdown reception early in the first quarter. The score was called back for illegal use of the hands on center Ted Larsen, but it was an in-game glimpse of what Carlson has shown in practice for the past several months.

“That wasn’t even a fair fight,” Arians said with a smile. “Him on Clowney, and it was the first time he’d ever dropped (into coverage) probably. It was a perfect route and Carson (Palmer) was licking his chops. It’s a shame it got called back.”

It has never been a question of talent with Carlson, who averaged 53 catches, 600 yards and six touchdowns per season in his first two years in the NFL with the Seahawks. Instead, it was the risk of concussions which allowed the Cardinals to take a low-risk flier – a two-year, $4.65 million deal with little guaranteed money – on him after the Vikings waived Carlson in March.

Carlson quickly ascended the depth chart upon arriving in Arizona and played seven snaps with the first-team offense against the Texans. While he didn’t officially record a catch, there seems to be little doubt Carlson can be a productive player if he can stay on the field.

While Carlson does not take his concussion history lightly, he said he cannot dwell on the risk associated with returning to the lineup.

“I did everything I could to be as healthy as I could be over the course of the offseason,” Carlson said. “As a football player, I’m concerned about my health. As a husband and father, I’m conscious of the risks associated with football, but I feel very confident in the things I did over the course of the offseason to get as healthy as I can be. I feel great right now, so I’m not concerned. Injuries happen in football, whether things have happened in the past or not.”

While there are minimal financial repercussions if Carlson gets hurt again, he’s an important piece for the team’s 2014 fortunes. Jake Ballard retired last week with knee problems, second-round pick Troy Niklas may not yet be ready for a substantial role and incumbent Rob Housler was inconsistent in 2013.

If Carlson is the reliable pass-catching option the team envisions, the others slot behind him nicely. If not, the position becomes more tenuous.

“His résumé speaks for itself,” Arians said. “It’s just a matter of staying healthy.”

When Carlson played for Seattle, the Seahawks weren’t the juggernaut they are now. Matt Hasselbeck and Seneca Wallace split time at quarterback when Carlson was a rookie, and the team totaled only 2,831 passing yards that season. Carlson led the team in receptions (55), receiving yards (627) and touchdowns (5).

He caught passes from Hasselbeck, Wallace and Charlie Whitehurst the next two years, and the Vikings cycled through Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman during Carlson’s two seasons in Minnesota.

Palmer may not be an elite quarterback, but he threw for 4,274 yards in 2013. With the other weapons the Cardinals have occupying defenders on offense, Carlson should have his chances to shine.

“Playing with Carson Palmer excited me,” Carlson said. “I know Michael (Floyd) and Larry (Fitzgerald), being from Minnesota, and I knew how talented they were. Andre Ellington, I saw a little of him. It just felt like a great opportunity.”

Throughout the offseason, Arians has been quick to praise the transformation of his tight end group from a year ago. It took a hit with the retirement of Ballard, but considering last year’s starter, Housler, is battling for playing time, it’s clear the group is deeper.

Carlson leads the way, and even with his concussion history, Arians is not pulling back the reins in training camp. There are no restrictions on the hits Carlson is receiving, because it’s important to see if he can handle the rigors of the season.

"There's no sense babying him and all of a sudden you put him in the game and he gets a concussion," Arians said earlier in camp. "Where do you go from there? John's got to find out. We've got to find out.”

He’s made it through one game, and showed what he can do when healthy. If Carlson can say the same by the end of December, the Cardinals could have an upper-shelf tight end at a basement price.

“I’m focusing on trying to improve every day and trying to contribute to this team in any way I can,” Carlson said. “I know that if I do those things, it’ll probably work out OK.”

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