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Bill Belichick: David Johnson isn't Marshall Faulk

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Patriots coach Bill Belichick isn't ready to break out the anointing oils for Cardinals running back David Johnson.

The Arizona braintrust spent the offseason lavishing unusually lofty praise on their uniquely talented second-year star.

Head coach Bruce Arians set the bar high when he acknowledged in February that Johnson has a chance to be one of the all-time best at his position. Running backs coach Stump Mitchell believes there's a Hall of Fame bust in the former Northern Iowa star's future.

All Pro defensive back Tyrann Mathieu drew comparisons between Johnson and St. Louis Rams legend Marshall Faulk. General manager Steve Keim raved about Johnson as a peerless receiving back.

"A lot of people have compared him to Marshall Faulk, and our coaches had Marshall Faulk in Indy," Keim explained last month, providing a hint at Johnson's future role. "I think he's very similar in some ways athletically and in terms of ball-catching skills to Marshall."

Those Faulk comparisons landed on Belichick's radar this week as he prepares to do battle with Johnson in the season debut of Sunday Night Football.

"When (the Rams) went to a three-receiver set, they just split (Faulk) out as a third receiver along with the other two receivers and a tight end. So they ran an 11-personnel looking formation but he was the third receiver," Belichick explained during a Monday conference call. "I don't know that's quite David Johnson's skill set. I don't know if there's many players in the league who could do what Marshall Faulk did. He was a pretty special and unique player.

"Johnson's a good receiver, he catches the ball well and has good run-after-catch skills. He can make people miss. Again, he's got the strength to break tackles. And he's got some speed to separate. Marshall Faulk, that's putting the bar pretty high with him."

Starting with Johnson's third NFL game in late September of last season, Arians did indeed begin splitting his rookie out wide or in the slot for 11-personnel (one back, one tight end) packages. If not for Chris Johnson's season-ending injury that forced the younger Johnson into a workhorse backfield role, Belichick would have seen that alignment more often from mid-November through January.

Now that he has the luxury of backfield depth again, Arians can continue to concoct new methods to take advantage of Johnson's mismatch potential in the passing game.

That said, it's easy to see why Belichick would reject the notion of placing Johnson in Faulk's class.

On a fabled "Greatest Show on Turf" team loaded with Kurt Warner, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, the transcendent Faulk was the focal point of Belichick's masterful "Bullseye" game plan in Super Bowl XXXVI.

"What sets him apart from everybody else is that he can go from a standing start to full speed faster than anybody I've ever seen," former Colts coach Ted Marchibroda said in David Halberstam's 2005 book, The Education of a Coach. "When he runs the ball and is forced to hesitate, his next step is full speed."

Warner believed it was Faulk's quarterback-like field vision that set him apart from other backs of his era. Former Rams player personnel chief Charley Armey bolstered that assessment.

"He runs with his eyes probably as well as any back in pro football, probably in the history of pro football," Armey told Halberstam. "His legs allow him to do what his instincts and eyes tell him to do."

The Cardinals have seen Johnson's exploits on a daily basis for over a year now. As hyperbolic as their assessment might seem from afar, the game film suggests they are about to unleash a transcendent talent in 2016.

Even if Johnson proves to be the rare back with natural receiving skills on par with Faulk's, though, what are the chances that he can also duplicate the Hall of Famer's unparalleled instincts, vision and suddenness?

High praise from Belichick is regarded as the "white whale" for NFL players. Perhaps Johnson can join Faulk on Belichick's opponent Mt. Rushmore with a memorable performance versus the Patriots on Sunday night.

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