After nearly a year on the sidelines, Markus Golden returned to his natural habitat on Wednesday afternoon.
The fourth-year defensive end practiced with the Cardinals for the first time since tearing his ACL last October. He received a big hug from defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche during individual drills and said afterward that his knee felt great.
Golden did limited work and seems unlikely to play on Sunday against the Rams, but for a guy who loves the game with an unbridled passion, this was a significant milestone.
"You just feel like a ballplayer again," Golden said. "After I walked off the field, that's what I said. 'Man, I feel like a football player again.' I'm excited. I just want to keep it going. I can't wait to get on the field and play in a game."
Golden led the Cardinals in sacks with 12½ in 2016 even while playing next to Chandler Jones and Calais Campbell. He did not have one last year before getting injured against the 49ers in Week 4. Golden said it was the first significant injury of his life, and the wait was rough.
"It was really hard to be patient, especially when you have to come in every day and see it, be around it all the time," Golden said. "I stayed patient through it and I'm still being patient. It ain't over yet, man."
Coach Steve Wilks said he doesn't want to play Golden too soon and risk a setback, but was excited to get him back on the field.
"I miss his energy, his enthusiasm," Wilks said. "I can't wait to get him out there full-time."
Golden wasn't ruling himself out for Sunday, saying "you never know what can happen." Whenever he does return, Golden promised one thing: he will be his full-octane self, not someone worried about getting hurt again.
"I put in all the work in here (rehabbing)," Golden said. "I didn't take a day off. I never went light. So whatever happens when I get back out there, I'm going to play like I play and play hard. It's in God's hands. I did everything I can do. I done held up my end of the bargain."
WETZEL READY IF NEEDED
The MRI on right tackle Andre Smith's elbow came back clean, but there is soreness and Wilks said "we really need to give him some time to recover a bit." John Wetzel replaced Smith in the fourth quarter and figures to be the fill-in if needed on Sunday.
Wetzel began last year as a backup but ended up starting 11 games, so he knows the drill.
"I was going to stay ready," Wetzel said. "It happened the same thing last year (when D.J. Humphries was hurt in the opener). I was thinking since it happened before, I was like, 'Well, at least I've been through it.' I was ready again. I'm more prepared as the years go on."
Smith didn't practice, and neither did defensive tackle Olsen Pierre (toe). Safety Budda Baker (ankle), tight end Jermaine Gresham (Achilles), running back David Johnson (back) and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (foot) were limited. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and quarterback Sam Bradford were limited but those were not injury related.
For the Rams, All-Pro return man Pharoh Cooper was placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury. Los Angeles only held a walk-through on Wednesday, but linebacker Mark Barron (ankle) and wide receiver Michael Thomas (hip) would not have practiced.
A BUBBLE ADJUSTMENT
Wilks took the Cardinals out of the heat and into the team's indoor bubble for practice. He wanted to cut out any detrimental factors to assure the players were tuned in.
"I want to make sure we have a great level of focus, the guys can concentrate, we can get the communication, we can have the crowd noise inside," Wilks said. "I thought we had a very effective practice. Was that the difference last week? I don't think so … but you always want to make sure you're preparing your guys in the right away and giving those guys a chance."
Images of the Cardinals cheerleaders during the season opener against Washington