David Johnson was a superstar for the Cardinals, until injuries and a new offensive system changed the course for the running back.
The Cards found a trade partner in the Houston Texans, and the resulting deal meant Johnson was forever linked with DeAndre Hopkins.
Johnson acknowledged this week it was a scenario that weighed on him.
"I was in such a fishbowl," Johnson told Aaron Reiss of The Athletic. "Everything I did was going to be magnified because of the trade. Honestly, I felt like if I was traded for anyone else, it wouldn't be as bad."
After Johnson had an other-worldy 2016 season with 1,239 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, with another 80 catches for 819 yards and four touchdowns. Had he not hurt his knee early in the 2016 finale, there would have been a push to get him to the 1,000-yard receiving mark.
He missed almost all the 2017 season with a wrist injury, and still received a three-year, $39 million contract extension at the outset of the 2018 season. But he never got back to the level of 2016, and after a year in which he fell behind both Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds in Kliff Kingsbury's offense, the Cardinals decided to ship Johnson, a second-round pick and a fourth-round pick to Houston for Hopkins and a fourth-round pick.
It was a surprising swap, one that few didn't see weigh heavily in the Cardinals' favor.
"I felt like I was constantly having a lot of adversity thrown at me," Johnson told The Athletic, the stress of which bled into his family life.
Since the trade, the two have had different experiences from an individual and team standpoint. The Texans posted a 4-12 record last season, and Johnson was the primary running back in the 31st-ranked rushing attack, finishing the year with 691 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in 12 games, with another 33 catches for 314 yards.
Hopkins had another Pro Bowl nod season with 115 catches for 1407 yards and six touchdowns, even though the Cards missed the playoffs at 8-8.
This year, the Texans are one of the worst teams in football. Johnson is second-string on the depth chart behind Mark Ingram, posting just 79 yards on 20 carries through six games, and adding 14 catches for 127 yards. Meanwhile, the Cardinals remain unbeaten at 6-0 on a potential playoff run, while Hopkins is tied for the most catches (26) while leading team in receiving yards (367), touchdowns (6), and yards per game (61.2)
Cardinals defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who played with Johnson last year during his final year in Houston, said Johnson didn't get to pick his destination. Watt expects Johnson to want a big performance against his former team Sunday.
"I'm sure he's hoping to have a big game," Watt said. "So, I'm looking forward to the challenge."
INJURED HUDSON STILL PLAYS A ROLE
Rodney Hudson is respected by run game coordinator/offensive line coach Sean Kugler for being arguably the best center in the NFL and for his leadership to the Cardinals organization.
Hudson, on injured reserve with ribs and shoulder injuries, wasn't supposed to travel to Cleveland. He changed his mind when coach Kliff Kingsbury couldn't go on the trip, knowing he could be a valuable resource.
"Rodney is a leader," Kugler said. "He sensed the team at the point needed him. The thought process was to have him heal up and not travel with his rib injury, but he decided to be a part of the process. After each series, he would visit with lineman and give them his view of what he saw – and it was very beneficial. He's been outstanding."
HICKS REMAINS DNP
For the second consecutive day, linebacker Jordan Hicks (toe/ankle), tight end Darrell Daniels (hamstring), linebacker Kylie Fitts (concussion) did not practice for the Cardinals, although tackle lineman Kelvin Beachum (ribs) and linebacker Devon Kennard (shoulder) both returned Thursday on a limited basis.
For the Texans, defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson (back) and defensive tackle Ross Blacklock (Personal) did not practice. Offensive lineman Justin Britt (knee), wide receiver Nico Collins (foot), and wide receiver Chris Conley (neck) were limited.