Can Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington be one of the breakout fantasy football stars of 2014?
Let’s take a look at two rookie running backs from last season: Rookie A and Rookie B.
Rookie A rushed for 652 yards on 118 attempts (5.5 yards per carry); Rookie B rushed for 695 yards on 170 attempts (4.1 yards per carry). Both running backs are likely in line to be their team’s respective starter in 2014, yet many fantasy experts currently project the value of Rookie A to be significantly lower than that of Rookie B.
Based on his team’s new backfield composition, improved offensive line and expected increase in workload, it can be argued that Rookie A—Andre Ellington—is poised for a breakout sophomore season and should be valued at least as highly as guys like Rookie B—Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard.
Ellington frustrated his fantasy owners last season, failing to put together consecutive weeks with starter-caliber numbers. He flashed brilliance in both the run and pass game, but his production suffered from limited touches, poor blocking and an inconsistent offense. However, things are looking up for the former Clemson Tiger in 2014 due to key team departures and additions that, along with new offensive scheming, could translate into a monster fantasy season.
The door is open for Andre Ellington to assume the Cardinals’ starting backfield role this coming season. His primary competition for carries last year came from the newly retired Rashard Mendenhall. Despite proving to be the more prolific player—the two backs had nearly identical fantasy production last year even though Ellington saw 30 percent less carries (118 compared to 217 for Mendenhall)—Ellington remained the change-of-pace back throughout the season while Mendenhall carried the primary load.
With Mendy now taking his talents to his typewriter, all indications point toward Ellington assuming the starting gig in Arizona. At the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last month, head coach Bruce Arians expressed his faith in Ellington, stating “we want to build our offense around him this year.” Arians added that Ellington put on 10 pounds of muscle since the season ended—a change Arians expects will increase Ellington’s durability (i.e. a likely increase in touches).
If Ellington should receive even half of the Cardinals’ backfield workload in 2014, he’s shown that the results could be special. In Week 8 last season against the Atlanta Falcons, Mendenhall did not play due to injury and coach Arians handed shared backfield duties over to Ellington and fellow rookie back Stepfan Taylor. The outcome was seemingly one of those “Christmas morning” moments for owners who snatched Ellington off waivers early and thought they had struck gold.
Ellington seized his moment in the spotlight and turned 15 carries into 154 yards and a score. Taylor received a near-even split: 14 carries totaling 38 rushing yards. Some of the NFL’s leading analysts were so taken with Ellington’s display of talent that they believed he would immediately supplant Mendenhall as the team’s starter going forward.
Now, Ellington has a full offseason to work with Arizona’s starters and devise plays specifically designed to put him in the spotlight. Additionally, the team’s backfield competition is underwhelming, to say the least, so Ellington’s starting job should not be in jeopardy as long as he remains in good health.
Taylor should remain low on the depth chart—following his subpar Week 8 performance last year, Taylor did not receive more than five carries in a game for the remainder of the season. Perpetually injured Ryan Williams has only played five games in his three years with the Cardinals and, if he is not cut in the offseason, is unlikely to pose much of a threat to Ellington’s workload.
The team did sign free agent and former Pittsburgh Steeler Jonathan Dwyer earlier this month, though his role in the offense will likely be in short-yardage and goal-line situations—carries that Ellington would have been unlikely to receive regardless of the signing. The Steelers relegated Dwyer to the practice squad several times during his tenure in Pittsburgh, as he never exhibited the ability to be a starting NFL running back.
Ellington should also have some bigger holes to run through next season. The Cardinals have taken steps to address their horrific offensive line, ranked as the worst in the league by Pro Football Focus for the second year in a row. Lining up against the elite NFC West front sevens six times each year is no easy task, and Arizona surely realized it must make dramatic improvements in this unit to compete.
The Cardinals drafted offensive guard Jonathan Cooper with the seventh overall pick in the NFL draft in 2013 but then lost him for the year following a broken fibula in the preseason. The former All-American lineman should be fully recovered for 2014. Additionally, Arizona signed former Oakland Raiders offensive tackle Jared Veldheer to a five-year deal in free agency. Veldheer will fill Arizona’s desperate need for a solid left tackle.
These key additions, and likely more to come in this year’s draft, should help extend Arizona’s offensive possessions and help players such as Ellington to find space to make plays.
Andre Ellington could be the next Jamaal Charles. Both players share a versatile skill set that can be weaponized all over the field, and their teams each view them as the centerpiece of their respective offenses. While it may be another season before Ellington is able to put all the pieces together and tout elite running back fantasy numbers, the upside and opportunity for success are apparent.
Ellington totaled over 1,000 yards of offense and four touchdowns in his rookie year when he averaged less than 10 touches per game and ran behind a putrid offensive line. It is not unreasonable to suggest that his production could double in 2014—a total that would position him among the top backs in fantasy.