After Rashard Mendenhall’s abrupt retirement in March, pundits wondered what the Arizona Cardinals' offseason plans would be at the running back position. Some felt they needed to upgrade in free agency, and others believed they were better suited to find a replacement in the draft.
Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com mentioned Darren McFadden, Maurice Jones-Drew and Knowshon Moreno as notable options prior to free agency, while Bleacher Report's Chris Simms touched on Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde. Simms views Hyde as an under-the-radar prospect the Cardinals could steal in the second round.
All three street free agents would have been welcomed additions in the desert if the Cardinals would have actively pursued them—but they didn’t. Hyde could still be in play on Day 2 of the draft, but they shouldn’t hold their breath. Why? Because Bruce Arians’ club could use two outside linebackers, a safety, a right tackle and a tight end.
In comparison to those four positions of need, it’s clear that the running back position will not be addressed in this year’s draft. That’s good news for Arizona fans, considering the Cardinals are actually set at running back.
For those of you who suddenly forgot, Arizona’s front-office staff drafted two running backs in 2013 and another one in 2011. Stepfan Taylor was a fifth-round pick out of Stanford, Andre Ellington was a sixth-round pick out of Clemson and Ryan Williams was a second-round pick out of Virginia Tech.
With so many young draft picks invested at one position, Arians is bound and determined to find out how well Taylor, Ellington and Williams respond to expanded roles.
Even though Ellington is viewed as “small” and “fragile,” his workload is set to increase tenfold. Yes, Arians was cautious about overusing him during his rookie season, yet Ellington has been deliberately adding weight to his frame this offseason.
At the end of last season, he knew he needed to put on a few pounds to garner more carries in 2014. Ellington’s efforts of becoming more rock solid were already a reality at the NFL Scouting Combine. Arians told reporters that the second-year speedster added 10 pounds of muscle in less than two months' worth of offseason work, via Kevin Patra of NFL.com.
Arians went on to say the Cardinals wanted to build their “offense around him.” This is an absolute no-brainer based on Ellington’s production as a rookie. According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the home run-hitting tailback finished the 2013 season as the 10th-best running back in the league.
On 118 attempts, he amassed 652 yards rushing, 372 yards after contact, 20 forced missed tackles and eight runs of 20 yards or more. For the sake of comparison, Ellington forced more missed tackles than Ray Rice, picked up more yards after contact than Lamar Miller and averaged more yards per attempt than LeSean McCoy.
In terms of his skill set as a runner, here’s what Matt Miller of Bleacher Report had to say about Ellington when he evaluated him at the end of the 2013 season for B/R NFL 1000:
He’s incredibly explosive and only needs to show it as an every-down back.
There are times when Ellington looks like an ant being chased by a boy with a magnifying glass, but there are other occasions when he has the patience of an artist painting his masterpiece. He has the ability to do everything he needs to, but he is wildly inconsistent at this stage.
He'll likely never be able to carry the ball as many as 300 times a season, but he'll always have an important role as long as he has that speed and elusive ability.
Miller’s right: Ellington is wildly inconsistent at times, but what rookie isn’t? In preparation for his second pro season, expect Arizona’s coaching staff to refine Ellington’s vision and receiving skills.
Despite being versatile and explosive in the open field, the Day 3 pick had six drops on 57 targets, per PFF. This, in turn, meant he had the ninth-highest drop rate at his position.
Will Ellington ever garner over 300 carries in Arians’ offense? No, but odds are he leads the Cardinals in touches next year. His added bulk and experience has him locked in as Arizona’s top back.
As far as Taylor goes, general manager Steve Keim said the team has “big expectations” for him in 2014, via Kevin Patra of NFL.com. Moreover, he highlighted Taylor’s pass-protection skills and his ability to successfully run between the tackles.
Based on Keim’s comments at the combine, you shouldn’t be surprised if Taylor ends up being the Cardinals’ short-yardage back. His vision, quick acceleration at the line of scrimmage and willingness to initiate contact will undoubtedly help him find the field on Sundays.
The freshly signed Jonathan Dwyer will push Taylor in training camp, but that’s as far as the competition will go. Taylor has a higher ceiling than Dwyer and will quickly prove he is the more valuable asset of the two.
With the Nos. 1 and 2 spots inked on the depth chart, a handful of you may be wondering about Williams’ future with the team. While little has been said in regard to his status with the organization, Keim briefly spoke on the subject of the fourth-year player in February, via Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com:
Ryan is a tremendous talent. He’s a guy who still, on the practice field, shows us the movement skills, the run ability, the change of direction is fantastic. Obviously he has had to battle injuries, which has probably been his biggest issue. And last year, bringing in Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington and the impact both of those players made instantly put Ryan on the backburner.
He’s a guy we still have hopes for. He’s still got the ability and I think Bruce (Arians) just wants him to put it all together.
Was Keim talking Williams up so he could find a potential trade partner, or are the Cardinals genuinely interested in keeping him? That’s the million-dollar question. Yet, chances are we won’t know his worth until cut-down day rolls around in late August.
If he does perform on the practice field and in preseason games, Arizona will surely keep him for another year. However, if Williams’ bombs on the field or gets hurt for an extended period of time, Keim will hand him his walking papers.
In the NFL, you only get so many chances. There comes a time when a team realizes a particular player is nothing more than a burden. Often-injured players who miss significant amounts of time on an annual basis are the ones who are classified as burdens.
All in all, the Cardinals’ backfield oozes talent and is set to take a big step forward in 2014. Sure, experts may have their fair share of concerns, but a lot can happen from now until the start of the season.
Williams could end up being healthy for the first time in his career, Taylor could play with more power and Ellington could prove the naysayers wrong and touch the ball 25 times a game.
That’s the beautiful nature of the NFL; anything can happen at any given time.
Furthermore, Arians and Keim have had this team headed in the right direction ever since they took over, which means it’s wise to trust their evaluations and decision-making skills.