KeeSean Johnson, Damiere Byrd Catching Cardinals’ Eye

Rookie wide receiver KeeSean Johnson runs with the ball after a catch against Minnesota.
Rookie wide receiver KeeSean Johnson runs with the ball after a catch against Minnesota.

MINNEAPOLIS – The Cardinals officially signed veteran receiver Michael Crabtree on Sunday, and he is projected to slide into the starting lineup at some point early in the season.

That may take away opportunities from the other outside wideouts, but it doesn’t eliminate them.

Coach Kliff Kingsbury showed a propensity to use four-receiver sets in college and is expected to keep it part of his scheme in the NFL. KeeSean Johnson and Damiere Byrd are two players battling for a role and showed why they are in the discussion with strong games Saturday against the Vikings.

Johnson had seven catches for 85 yards while Byrd had two for 51, including a 33-yard catch down the left sideline in which he left Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes in the dust.

“They’ve really played well throughout camp,” Kingsbury said. “It was good to see Damiere separate on a deep ball and have a couple of stop routes that we felt he executed perfectly. And KeeSean, the ball keeps coming his way and he keeps making plays on it.”

Johnson was the third receiver the Cardinals drafted – going in the sixth round – but is further along than Andy Isabella and the now-injured Hakeem Butler. Johnson’s lack of elite foot speed has not been an issue, as he has shown the ability to separate from defensive backs with precise footwork.

Johnson made an impressive adjustment on a back-shoulder throw from quarterback Kyler Murray against Minnesota, as the rookies flashed chemistry often reserved for veterans.

“We’ve had a lot of time together throughout rookie minicamp and the whole time when the vets had to leave and it was just rookies there,” Murray said. “I’ve gotten to build a relationship with him, on and off the field.”

Johnson said the addition of Crabtree won’t change his mindset, and believes it could help him moving forward.

“We’ve been competing all camp, and we’ll keep continuing to compete, day in and day out, regardless of who is here,” Johnson said. “For me, I’m taking it as I can learn some things from him.”

While Johnson is a lock for the roster, Byrd’s spot is more tenuous. He seems like the favorite if Kingsbury keeps a seventh wideout, although the Cardinals’ first spot on the waiver claim could complicate matters.

After Saturday’s game, Byrd wasn’t considering whether the impressive performance helped his standing.

“I don’t think of it in those terms,” Byrd said. “Football is football. If you get caught up in the numbers game, the numbers game is going to get you.”

Byrd has a couple of assets in his corner. He is a strong kick and punt returner – as evidenced by a 28-yard punt return against the Vikings – and is the only outside receiver on the roster with elite speed.

“My skillset, not many people have it,” Byrd said. “It’s something you can’t teach.”

The Cardinals’ receivers had trouble creating separation a season ago, which is why the room was revamped this offseason.

Johnson and Byrd are both new faces who got open regularly against the Vikings. It was a welcome sight to Cardinals fans and Murray alike.

“I liked the matchups on the outside,” Murray said. “… (I had) confidence in them to win their one-on-one matchups, and they did.”

Images from the third preseason game on Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis

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