Arizona Cardinals: Full Position Breakdown, Depth Chart Analysis at Running Back
Last week, we broke down the Arizona Cardinals quarterbacks room. Continuing the series this week, we will break down and analyze the depth chart at running back, starting at the top and working our way to the bottom.
Trivia Question: How many Cardinals running backs have topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage as a rookie?
Trivia Answer: Four; Ottis Anderson (1979), Johnny Johnson (1990), Ronald Moore (1993) and Andre Ellington (2013).
Bonus Trivia: How many running backs have led the NFL in yards per carry as a rookie? The answer will come later, but the list is exclusive and you will want to stick around to see it.
Rashard Mendenhall retired after a subpar 2013 season with the Cardinals. As pusillanimous as his retirement may seem, the reality is that Mendenhall would not have started over Ellington this season, and teams likely showed little to no interest in his services.
Who else besides Ellington is on the roster and what do we know about them? Walk with me through the depth chart as we analyze Arizona’s stable of running backs to find out.
Starter: Andre Ellington
Yes, Ellington is Arizona’s No. 1 running back option this season. That much is clear. What’s unclear is how much of a workload head coach Bruce Arians will drop on him.
Many of you may have seen the much ballyhooed report that Arians wants to make Ellington a bell-cow back. Whether that’s a good idea remains to be seen, but it also could have been yet another offseason smokescreen from the Cardinals’ second-year coach.
A running back averaging 25 to 30 touches per game over a 16-game season means he would get the ball 400 to 480 times.
I did some extensive research (sizeable chart here) to find running backs whose teams gave them 400-plus touches in a season since 1978, and it’s not a long list. Twenty-four players did it a total of 41 times, and only one running back in that time—James Wilder with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1984—averaged over 30 touches per game.
That season, he totaled 492 touches in 16 games, an average of 30.75 per game. Put simply, that is far, far too many for a back in today's NFL. Unless Ellington is on the field for every snap in 2014 (please don’t expect that), that won’t happen.
He’ll be lucky to rack up 400 touches.
That is not a knock on Ellington by any stretch, because he will be a focal point of the offense in 2014. He can do a bit of everything and is not limited to being a speed back; he can even run over players bigger than he is.
Ellington should have a good season. How good it ends up being will be determined by how often Arians calls his number.
2a: Stepfan Taylor
Remember the name Michael Stone? No?
He was a strong safety out of Memphis whom the Cardinals drafted No. 54 overall in the 2001 NFL draft. Much like Stepfan Taylor, Stone was made obsolete by the player Arizona took immediately after him.
While it’s premature (and odd) to compare Ellington to Cardinals great Adrian Wilson, the situations are similar.
Taylor fell to the fifth round of the 2013 draft and, like Ellington, came in as a rookie with something to prove. Only, Taylor never truly got that opportunity because Ellington broke out, and Mendenhall was already the starter.
With Mendenhall out of the picture, Taylor finally has his opportunity to show what he can do. He did see action in 13 games last season as a running back and H-back/lead blocker.
And with Arians stating he would like to use more two-back sets this season, according to Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds, Taylor certainly will be in the mix to do some things offensively.
It’s highly doubtful those things include overtaking Ellington as the lead back, but Taylor could win the backup job. Only time and repetitions will sort that out, though.
2b: Jonathan Dwyer
Another player to make the trek west from the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jonathan Dwyer will battle Taylor for backup duty this season. He’s on a one-year deal worth $790,000, according to Spotrac; if he wants to stick around beyond 2014, he must show he can do more things than rush the ball, among them being pass-blocking, for example, is a strength of Dwyer’s.
The 5’11”, 235-pound former Georgia Tech running back averaged 4.0 yards per carry during his last two seasons with the Steelers. He averaged just 3.6 carries per game, however, and probably won’t reach that in 2014.
He does have some value in the passing game as a receiver, though he probably won’t be used out wide as Ellington will be. Any receptions he gets this season will come on screen passes out of the backfield.
No. 4: Robert Hughes
Arians has shown no hesitation in bringing in players who played under him when he was in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. Fullback Robert Hughes is another, signing last December as a free agent from the Colts.
A former Golden Domer at Notre Dame, Hughes was an undrafted free agent signed by the Chicago Bears in 2011. After brief stints in Tampa Bay and Washington, he settled in with Indy’s practice squad and was active for six games over the past two seasons, totaling 35 offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
He’s probably a camp body for now, but he could end up the fourth running back on the roster by season’s beginning. Will he play a snap in 2014 if he makes the team? Not unless two of the previously mentioned running backs suffer injuries and Arizona does not bring in a veteran free agent as a temporary replacement.
No. 5: Zach Bauman
Zach Bauman is an interesting addition to the Cardinals' offseason roster.
While seen as a camp body, whose purpose for training camp will be to soak up the experience of being on an NFL roster and to provide the other running backs with water breaks, Bauman could realistically beat out Hughes for the fourth back on the team.
A local product (Hamilton high school, Chandler, Ariz.), Bauman was a four-year contributor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, earning FCS All-America selection in three of those seasons.
His size and shiftiness will remind some Arizona fans of former Cardinals seventh-round pick, LaRod Stephens-Howling. Bauman stands just 5’7” and weighs 196 pounds. His NAU highlight reel is impressive, and if he can adapt to the size and speed of the NFL, he could end up as a nice change-of-pace back for a team—perhaps the Cardinals.
He will have to excel on special teams as well, which could be the deciding factor in late August.
No. 6: Damien Thigpen
A similar back to Bauman, former UCLA Bruins part-time back Damien Thigpen originally was invited this offseason to rookie camp as an undrafted free agent . He did not make the original cut but was brought back a couple weeks later, according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com.
Thigpen is a camp body with some speed. Like Bauman, he will provide water-break opportunities for the veterans and play special teams. Unlike Bauman, he has no shot to squeeze onto the back end of the roster. The practice squad is possible, but he will really have to impress for that to be a reality.
No. 7: Jalen Parmele
A five-year veteran NFL running back, Jalen Parmele has yet to catch on with a franchise and has floated all over the country since the Miami Dolphins made him a sixth-round pick in 2008.
He had brief stops in Baltimore, Jacksonville and Tennessee before signing a free-agent contract with Arizona in mid-May. Parmele has 47 carries in his five years for 187 yards (4.0 yards per carry) and no touchdowns.
He is one of the most prolific running backs in University of Toledo history, toting it 589 times in four seasons for 3,119 yards (5.3 YPC) and 28 touchdowns.
Out of the league last year, Parmele looks to impress during training camp and earn a roster spot. He could have difficulty doing that despite the overall depth at running back.
Bonus Trivia Answer
You remember the bonus trivia question from the outset, right? Don’t waste your time by scrolling back to find it, because here it is again:
How many running backs led the NFL in yards per carry as a rookie?
- Beattie Feathers, CHI: 8.44 YPC*, 1934
- Steve Van Buren, PHI: 5.55 YPC, 1944
- Hugh McElhenny, SF: 6.98 YPC, 1952
- Rick Casares, CHI: 5.38 YPC, 1955
- Lenny Moore, BAL: 7.55 YPC, 1956
- Nick Pietrosante, DET: 5.88 YPC, 1959
- Duane Thomas, DAL: 5.32 YPC, 1970
- Ickey Woods, CIN: 5.25 YPC, 1988
- Andre Ellington, AZ: 5.53 YPC, 2013
Before Ellington, it hadn’t been done in 25 years. A quarter-century? Over that span, backs like Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Jerome Bettis, Marshall Faulk, Curtis Martin and Adrian Peterson spent rookie seasons not leading the NFL in yards per carry.
Four Hall of Fame backs—Sanders, Smith, Faulk and Martin—during that time, and none of them did what Ellington did last year.
Arizona’s shifty back has a long way to go before he can properly be mentioned in the same sentence as any of those mentioned above, but he’s on the right track. It should be fun to watch him grow as a running back.
*Feathers’ 8.44 yards per carry is the NFL record for a single season; he was the first player in league history to rush for at least 1,000 yards, covering 1,004 yards during that historic 1934 season.