When the 2013 NFL draft ended, former Clemson running back Andre Ellington headed out west to be a part of an Arizona Cardinals backfield that was to feature free-agent addition Rashard Mendenhall, roster holdovers Ryan Williams and Alfonso Smith, and fellow rookie out of Stanford, Stepfan Taylor.
Mendenhall, the former Pittsburgh Steelers 1,000-yard workhorse back, had a history with new head coach Bruce Arians and was set to start at tailback—Mendenhall was hand-picked as Arizona’s bell-cow back by the 60-year-old first-time NFL head coach this offseason.
Williams, the third-year talent who played in five games during his first two seasons because of multiple season-ending injuries, appeared fully healthy for the first time in two years and possesses as much ability as any back on the roster.
Smith was probably the player Ellington had the least to worry about, as even though he is a solid special teams player and decent fill-in running back, he was no threat to start at any point.
And Taylor, who is Stanford’s all-time leading rusher and is the first Cardinal back to rush for at least 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, fits Arians’ mold of the “three-down back” perfectly. He is short but stout at 5’9” and 214 pounds and can absorb as many violent blows as he can deliver.
With so much beefy talent ahead of him on the depth chart, there was no way the 5’9”, 199-pound sixth-round pick with a history of minor nagging injuries would see the field as a rookie.
Then training camp began, and Ellington started showing off his lightning-strike quickness and elite vision to all in attendance at University of Phoenix Stadium. Whether it was breaking a tackle, finding a hole up the middle for a short touchdown run or making an acrobatic catch on a poorly thrown ball from one of the backup quarterbacks, Ellington made plays almost daily and impressed throughout.
He injured his neck in the days leading up to the first preseason game at Green Bay, causing him to miss the game. But he bounced back the next week against the Dallas Cowboys, carrying 10 times for 24 yards and catching two passes for 15 more.
In three preseason games, Ellington totaled 22 carries for just 57 yards, a 2.6 yards-per-carry average that now seems impossible with the way he is running. He added five receptions for 37 yards, showing he could be valuable in both the running and passing game—willing and able to do anything asked of him.
He began the regular season as the No. 4 back behind Mendenhall, Smith and Taylor and played only eight offensive snaps in the season-opening loss to the St. Louis Rams.
But since then, Ellington has earned the right to play more.
It started in Week 2 at home against the Detroit Lions. A play Arians called for Ellington in St. Louis nearly went for a touchdown. He ran a wheel route out of the backfield and was open, but quarterback Carson Palmer could not make the connection.
Arians called it again against Detroit, and Palmer put it on the money, springing Ellington for a 36-yard touchdown.
His touches slowly increased the more he flashed on game days. After torching the Atlanta Falcons in his first career start in place of an injured Mendenhall, it will be difficult to take him out of the starting lineup moving forward.
Ellington has been incredibly efficient with the football in his hands. According to Pro Football Focus, only the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson is more elusive than the rookie is. And among backs with at least 25 percent of his team’s rushing attempts, Ellington ranks first with 3.98 yards after contact per attempt (including both rushing and receiving attempts).
Here is a bit of NFL history for you. Since 1960, no NFL running back with at least 40 carries averaged more yards per carry than Ellington’s 7.74 through the first eight weeks of the season.
Not Adrian Peterson. Not Marcus Allen. Not Walter Payton. Not even Jim Brown.
Ellington’s 15-carry, 154-yard, 80-yard touchdown performance against the Falcons would be more than enough to give him the starting role in most other offenses.
But Arians would not commit to anything at Monday’s press conference. He reiterated that Ellington would get the touches they planned for him to get and that if Mendenhall plays against the Houston Texans, he would take Taylor’s carries, according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com.
We’ll see how that plays out when (Rashard) comes back. I’ll evaluate it when he comes back but I’m sure he will resume his role, as long as he’s full speed.
Somewhere between 15 and 20 touches per game is probably a good number for Ellington, who had 17 touches against the Falcons (15 rushes, 2 receptions). He likely could handle more, but Arians has made it clear he does not want the slightly built back to wear down.
Ellington is a home run threat every time he touches the ball. It would be best to get him as many opportunities with the ball in his hands as possible given that fact, especially when considering Mendenhall’s performance thus far.
The contrast between the two this season is about as stark as it gets.
As a coach, it just makes sense to get the ball into your playmakers’ hands. Stature should not play any part of the decision. These players are grown men who take a beating every week during the fall.
And at 200 pounds, Ellington is not exactly small. He compares in size to Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, who has missed three games in five-plus seasons as a starting NFL running back. Since entering the league in 2008, only Peterson has more carries than Johnson does.
Does that mean Ellington can be an every-down back as Johnson is? Not necessarily, but he can handle more carries than he has been given early on, that much is certain.