Cardinals running back Chris Johnson couldn't find a team in the offseason and is now a key piece of the offense.
If linebacker Karlos Dansby makes an impact for the Browns on Sunday, Steve Keim will nod his head knowingly.
In his three years as the Cardinals' General Manager, Keim has become famous for his ability to identify aging veterans who still have something left in the tank. When the rest of the league gets lukewarm on certain former stars, Keim has pounced, signing several who have gone on to have memorable seasons for the Cardinals with a small price tag.
It all started with Dansby, who signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract with the Cardinals in 2013 and promptly had his best season at the age of 32 – accumulating 114 tackles, 6½ sacks, four interceptions, 19 passes defensed and two defensive touchdowns. The Cardinals would have loved to bring him back, but he was so good that the Browns swooped in with a four-year, $24 million deal – longer than the Cards offered.
Keim has executed this blueprint several times since the Dansby signing. He added linebacker John Abraham (on a two-year deal) later that year, cornerback Antonio Cromartie in 2014, and running back Chris Johnson and linebacker Dwight Freeney this season.
Abraham and Cromartie made the Pro Bowl, and the early returns are good on the 2015 crop, as Freeney had a sack in his second game Monday against the Ravens and Johnson is second in the NFL in rushing.
Johnson could tell the Cardinals did their due diligence before signing him.
"I'm pretty sure they didn't bring me in just off my name," Johnson said. "I'm pretty sure they watched a lot of film on me and did all that stuff. If they felt like I didn't have it, they wouldn't have brought me in."
The Cardinals have also added veterans on one-year deals that have played big roles even if they didn't parlay it into huge new contracts, starters like linebacker Larry Foote, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and tackle Eric Winston. Coach Bruce Arians said the Cardinals are always perusing the list of available players and evaluating what kind of impact they would have if added.
"Steve's done a great job of having a ready list all the time," Arians said. "Our pro personnel department is outstanding. We've always got a list of guys that we think fit our schemes, fit our locker room – which is just as important – and we've been lucky."
INCENTIVES MORE ATTAINABLE FOR CHRIS JOHNSON
When Johnson signed for the veteran's minimum during training camp, there were incentives that would more than double his pay, but reaching them seemed unrealistic. In order to get a salary increase from $870,000 to $2 million, Johnson needed to rush for 1,300 yards and make the Pro Bowl.
Since he joined the team as a backup to Andre Ellington, there didn't figure to be enough carries even if he excelled.
Since then, Johnson has seized the starter role, and as the season nears its midway point, he is very close to on track. Johnson is on pace for 1,296 yards and his standout season and name recognition should keep him in the Pro Bowl conversation.
Johnson said he never gave much thought to that part of the contract.
"I was just excited to be playing football again," Johnson said. "I really didn't look at the incentives and all that other stuff. I was just looking at going to the right situation, and, (expletive), that I'd be playing football on Sunday."
SIX CARDINALS STARTERS DON'T PRACTICE WEDNESDAY
After a healthy start to the season, the Cardinals' injury list is growing. Seven players, including six starters, missed practice on Wednesday. They were wide receiver John Brown (hamstring), tight end Darren Fells (shoulder), linebacker Alex Okafor (calf), cornerback Jerraud Powers (hamstring), defensive tackle Frostee Rucker (quad), center Lyle Sendlein (ankle) and wide receiver Brittan Golden (groin).
"We'll see how they all feel tomorrow, but some will be back and some won't," Arians said.
Cornerback Justin Bethel (foot), safety Deone Bucannon (elbow) and Freeney (finger) were limited.
For the Browns, quarterback Josh McCown (right shoulder/ribs) didn't practice, and neither did tight end Rob Housler (hamstring), wide receiver Andrew Hawkins (concussion), running back Duke Johnson (not-injury-related), defensive back Jordan Poyer (shoulder), defensive end Randy Starks (not-injury-related) nor tackle Joe Thomas (not-injury-related).
Cornerback Joe Haden (ankle/concussion) was limited after missing the past two games with the head injury, as were defensive back Tashaun Gipson (ankle) and linebacker Craig Robertson (ankle).