How David Johnson Will Inject Life in Arizona Cardinals' Run Game

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMay 5, 2015

Jan 24, 2015; Mobile, AL, USA; South squad running back David Johnson of Northern Iowa (7) carries the ball against the North squad in the first quarter of the Senior Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports
Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals now have two versions of Andre Ellington. The actual Andre Ellington still has a role, and a leading one. He has joystick feet when healthy and is potentially the league’s next great pass-catching running back.

But the next Andre Ellington on their roster is the jumbo model. He’s supersized compared to the original and can absorb far more punishment while also bringing capable hands and after-the-catch ability.

David Johnson is in many ways what the Cardinals want Ellington to be: a workhorse who won’t continually crumble.

After missing out on Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon in the first round, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim waited until late during Day 2 of the draft to address his need for a more durable running back.

He selected Johnson at No. 86 overall, surely sensing his offensively creative head coach can squeeze every ounce of production out of a player who’s surprisingly fast for his size (6’1”, 224 lbs) and has many of the same core skills as Ellington without the frailty.

When he was doing a postmortem on the Cardinals' 2014 season, Keim still saw a lot to like from Ellington.

“When I went back and looked at some of the cut-ups, you can’t deny his skills—his feet, his acceleration—he’s got dynamic skills and game-changing speed,” Keim told Arizona Sports 98.7 during an interview back in February.

The problem, however, is a lack of tape to watch. Ellington’s small stature (5’9” and 199 lbs) predictably leads to frequent breaking and/or tearing. He suffered a split tendon in his foot during a Week 1 practice in 2014, and then his season ended after 12 games due to sports hernia surgery.

“It remains to be seen whether he can stay healthy for a full season,” Keim added.

Ellington’s future will likely look the same as his present: He’s a versatile though vastly undersized running back who fits perfectly in Bruce Arians’ pass-oriented offense. He has the hands to excel as a pass-catcher, and the sudden burst to force missed tackles.

But only when he's healthy, of course, which is a central theme of doom we’ll keep returning to with Ellington. It’s one that’s lingered over his career so far, and now a solution to satisfy all parties involved—Ellington, head coach Bruce Arians, Keim and a Cardinals offense that averaged a league-low 3.3 yards per carry in 2014—lies in Johnson, the ideal backfield platoon partner.

Did I mention he’s rather bulky? And fast? And really fast, considering he’s bulky?

At the NFL Scouting Combine, the small-school stud from Northern Iowa posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.50, which was the fourth-fastest sprint among the running back group.

That result goes from impressive to an achievement seemingly defying all scientific laws of forward movement when we consider Johnson’s weight relative to most of his peers.

2015 scouting combine top five 40 times for RBs
Running backHeightWeight40-yard dash time
Jeremy Langford6'0"2084.43
Karlos Williams6'1"2304.48
Trey Williams5'8"1954.49
David Johnson6'1"2244.50
Melvin Gordon6'1"2154.52
Source: CBSSports.com

The other exception there is former Florida State running back Karlos Williams, though he now faces burial amid the Buffalo Bills’ crowded running back depth chart.

Johnson’s overall production may be limited during his rookie season while Ellington still occupies the lead role. But his offensive value will extend beyond any numbers that fail to reach eye-popping heights.

He’ll bring the gift of life, injecting it into both Ellington and the Cardinals’ running game as a whole.

The former will come simply by having an overbearing body behind Ellington who can handle a heavy burden if needed, doing it with no change in the offensive scheme.

Prior to 2014, Arians suggested Ellington could get in the neighborhood of 25 touches per game, via ESPN.com’s Josh Weinfuss. How did that work out? Ellington hit the 25-plus-touch mark four times over his 12 games, topping out at 30 in Week 7. His workload increased dramatically compared to that of his rookie season, and his production went sharply in the opposite direction.

Andre Ellington struggled with an increased workload
YearGames playedTotal touchesTouches/gameYards/touch
20141224720.54.3
20131515710.56.5
Source: NFL.com

Ellington was used often as a receiver in space, because that’s a natural fit with his skill set. But as a lead back in 2014, he also saw a spike in carries.

During his rookie season he was given 118 carries. Then that backfield pounding spiked to 218, even during a shortened year in which Ellington played three fewer games.

He limped through the heavier workload, averaging only 3.3 yards per carry in 2014, over two yards lower than his 5.5-per-carry average in 2013.

To thrive, Ellington needs to be fresh, and not exposed to high-volume throttling. The solution to that short-term problem is a running back who can function in the same capacity, and do it on every down.

Although Johnson will surely get a goal-line role, he doesn’t have the typical power approach suggested by his size. During NFL Network’s draft coverage, Mike Mayock compared him to the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell. He's even more massive at 244 pounds yet still finished 2014 with 854 receiving yards.

Johnson needs to improve as a straight-line, downhill runner if he wants to come remotely close to the heights Bell has already reached. But purely from a pass-catching perspective, it’s easy to see the comparison.

Over four seasons at Northern Iowa, Johnson compiled 1,734 receiving yards in addition to his 4,682 yards as a runner. His best season was also his last: 536 receiving yards and an average of 149.2 yards from scrimmage each week.

His game film shows a slippery elusiveness after the catch with a body to absorb blows. Ellington couldn’t check off either of those boxes in 2014. His injury woes are well-documented and contributed to a lack of missed tackles forced. Pro Football Focus gave him an elusive rating of only 14.4, last among the 18 running backs who received at least 50 percent of their team’s touches.

Johnson had no problem creating great air tackles while posting 203 receiving yards against Iowa during his final college season. That game against a Big Ten team and the 22nd-ranked defense in the nation served as a shining platform.

In the second quarter the Northern Iowa Panthers lined up in a spread formation with four wide receivers. Johnson was in the backfield to the left of quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen.

Johnson ran a deep seam route. The imposing momentum he had while leaving the backfield forced the linebacker assignment to him into a difficult decision, one he had to make quickly. Should he turn and burn? Or bump Johnson to disrupt both his speed and the route’s timing?

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

The second option is also the fundamental one, because allowing a speed threat like Johnson to run free into the secondary usually isn’t good for the business of winning football games.

But Johnson didn’t allow any bump or physical grappling near the line. The 23-year-old showed his receiver instincts with a quick stutter step and head fake to get the linebacker leaning right, before he bolted left.

Just like that, he gained easy separation in full stride.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

Then there was only green grass ahead for a 54-yard gain.

Credit: Draftbreakdown.com

Johnson has repeatedly shown the acceleration to produce chunk plays, especially during his final season at Northern Iowa, in which he recorded two 70-yard catches.

His status as a larger Ellington Clone isn’t lost on Arians.

“He’s got good power, but his receiving ability is as close to Andre’s as anybody I’ve seen,” Arians told Weinfuss.

The hope is that as a runner Johnson develops more authority between the tackles while muscling through contact. That may come in time, but for now the Cardinals will embrace the much-needed duplicity in their backfield given Ellington’s injury history.

In the short term Johnson will return kicks, be a large body in situations where one is needed and be a more rotund version of Ellington while offering Arians continuity throughout his running back depth chart.

Long term? He could be the new Ellington, after the old one is gone.

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