It likely would be difficult to find even a handful of people who truly believed he would have a major impact with the Cardinals in Year 1, or any impact at all. Given the state of the backfield at the time he was drafted, there was little chance he would have anything to do with the Arizona offense this season.
The Cardinals had just signed free agent Rashard Mendenhall as the starter; Ryan Williams was healthy and set to (finally) factor into the offense; fellow rookie Stepfan Taylor was added just one round prior to Ellington; and veteran Alfonso Smith was a holdover from the last regime with great work ethic and a will to see the field.
But a solid training camp—coupled with Williams having knee “complications” and sitting out the final three weeks of the preseason—opened the door for Ellington not only to be active for Week 1 against the St. Louis Rams, but to play as well.
First-year head coach and play-caller Bruce Arians gave him eight snaps on offense in St. Louis. Ellington had little statistical impact, recording one reception for 13 yards on three targets. Quarterback Carson Palmer missed him on a wheel route out of the backfield that would have gone for a big play. The rookie was open, getting behind Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis.
Arians was impressed with Ellington enough to increase his workload the next week—Arizona’s home opener against the Detroit Lions. In fact, Arians called that same wheel route for the rookie again.
This time, it went for a 36-yard touchdown, and a historic rookie season was underway.
The Twitter hashtag “#FreeEllington” took on a life of its own soon after the Detroit game and, much like the back, it hasn’t slowed down since. Arians remains “stubborn” according to some, sticking with Mendenhall as his starter in the backfield. But Ellington has been far-and-away the best back in Arizona this season.
Williams, who could be the most talented back on the roster, remains unused. Speculation suggests that Arians is punishing the third-year back for missing so much time during camp. But Ellington’s emergence in the offense likely has the most to do with Williams’ continued benching.
This season, Ellington has carried 94 times for 558 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. He has added 34 receptions for 351 yards (10.3 yards per catch) and a touchdown. He is the only player in the NFL averaging greater than 5.0 yards per carry (minimum 50 carries) and 10.0 yards per catch (minimum 20 receptions).
The smaller-than-ideal back lines up all over the place in Arians' offense. Other than at running back, he has lined up in the slot and even on the outside as a receiver. Palmer even believes Ellington could succeed as strictly a receiver, according to Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com:
If he really wanted to dedicate himself in the offseason [...] he could be a team's No. 2 receiver, without a doubt.
Ellington told Odegard he does plan on working this offseason to become a better receiver:
I'm actually going to work on it in the offseason, just kind of get the understanding of it. Right now, I'm kind of raw, just going out there playing. I never knew anything about it because I haven't played it, but I'm actually enjoying it a lot.
He leads the team with eight games of at least 60 yards from scrimmage—the Cardinals are 7-1 in those games. He is also among the league leaders in explosive plays and percentage of touches resulting in explosive plays.
For example, Ellington leads the NFL with 23.4 percent (22-of-94) of his carries gaining at least 10 yards. That’s a ridiculous number, in case you were wondering. If he had the same amount of carries as the league leader in 10-plus-yard carries, LeSean McCoy (36), Ellington would have 62 such carries—nearly twice that of McCoy.
But how is Ellington’s season historic?
Consider this: Since the NFL’s inception in 1920, only one rookie running back has carried 100 or more times averaging 5.0-plus yards per carry while having 40 or more receptions averaging 10.0-plus yards per reception. That was Abner Haynes with the Dallas Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs) in 1960.
|Comparing Rookie Seasons: Ellington and Haynes|
With a good finish this season, Ellington would be the second rookie RB to put up those numbers. Not bad for a sixth-round pick, right?
Now consider this: With an even better finish, he has a chance to be the only rookie in league history to average 6.0 yards per carry and 11.0 yards per reception. Just to have that as a possibility—to do something no rookie back has done in the NFL’s 94 years of existence—is incredible. Arizona's remaining schedule (at Seattle, San Francisco) suggests it will be extremely difficult, but counting this rookie out is a mistake.
Here is a list of other accomplishments Ellington has obtained or can obtain this season:
- Ninth player in NFL history with 10-plus carries for at least 7.0 YPC and four receptions for at least 20.0 YPC in a game (at Tennessee)
- First Cards RB to lead team in rushing and receiving yards in same game since 2002 (at Tennessee)
- Needs 91 yards to become fourth rookie running back in franchise history with 1,000 yards from scrimmage
- Needs six carries and six receptions to be franchise’s second RB with 100 carries and 40 receptions as a rookie (Ottis Anderson, 1979)
Ellington has been compared to All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles. That seems legitimate, as both are nearly identical in size and have breakaway speed with juke moves to elude most defenders. Their production as rookies differs, however.
|Comparing Rookie Seasons: Ellington and Charles|
|Player||Year||Total Touches||Total Yards||Yards/Touch||Total TD||Big Plays (10+ Yds)||% Touches 10+ Yds|
Though their yards-per-touch average is similar, Ellington far exceeds what Charles did in terms of bulk numbers due simply to the fact that he gets the ball more than Charles did. Charles was horribly underutilized as a rookie, which was a path nearly traveled by Ellington if not for the combination of events before and during the season that led to his breakout.
Though he won’t break any rookie yardage records, he will be among the top rookies in yards per carry in league history—the record is 8.44 by Beattie Feathers of the Chicago Bears in 1934. If he finishes well, Ellington could become the second rookie back in NFL history to top 6.0 yards per carry.
Much will be determined over the final two weeks of the NFL season. Playoff spots and draft positioning is still up in the air. What is already determined is that Ellington has put his name into the hat for the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He may not get the votes due to lack of touches and, ultimately, lack of yards, but his impact on the Cardinals season is undeniable.
Simply put: Ellington has had a rookie season for the ages.
Fun Fact: Jamaal Charles tied Abner Haynes' 43-year-old franchise record for most touchdowns in a game (5) last week against the Oakland Raiders. Against What team did Haynes set the mark in November, 1961? Yes, the Oakland Raiders.
Stats provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com