When head coach Bruce Arians took over the Arizona Cardinals prior to the 2013 season, the organization hadn’t had the best of luck finding talent at the running back position. Sure, Beanie Wells posted a 1,000-yard rushing season in 2011, but overall, he never became the player the franchise had hoped he would be.
Year after year, he was riddled with an assortment of different ailments. The only tailback that truly made a significant impact over the course of the last decade was Edgerrin James. Toward the tail end of his career, he surpassed the century mark in back-to-back seasons (2006 and 2007) for the Cardinals.
Prior to that, the last player to garner 1,000 yards rushing in back-to-back seasons for the franchise was Ottis Anderson. He accomplished the feat in 1983 and 1984. Yet, in today’s NFL, having an offense that runs through one featured back is becoming nonexistent.
This is exactly why Arians didn’t try and find one running back to shoulder the load during the offseason. He gutted the position from top to bottom and added players he felt offered a unique skill set.
In free agency, he went back to his roots from his days in Pittsburgh and dialed up Rashard Mendenhall. Yes, Mendenhall isn’t the same back he once was for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he knows Arians’ offense, and he’s a grinder who runs hard between the tackles.
Stepfan Taylor was Arizona’s fifth-round pick in this year’s draft. Coming out of college, analysts viewed Taylor as downhill runner who was smart and patient. Despite being 5’9”, Taylor was also perceived as a phenomenal blocker in pass protection.
Clemson’s finest, Andre Ellington, was the second tailback the Cardinals selected in the draft. He was the team’s sixth-round pick, and few could believe their eyes when he was still on the board after 186 picks. Scouts pegged Ellington as a big-play threat who had the ability to eat up yards whenever he touched the ball.
The scouts were right: Through five games this season, the 199-pound speedster has fans and media members alike buzzing. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ellington is currently the eighth-best running back in the NFL.
Based on his low snap count, that’s an impressive feat. Ellington has not only done an exceptional job of eating up big chunks of yards on the ground but as a pass-catcher as well. Heading into Week 6, the rookie speedster is averaging 6.7 yards per carry on 18 attempts.
Out of the backfield, he has been targeted 21 times for 13 receptions, 144 yards and one touchdown. To no one’s surprise, his most valued asset has been his ability to make defenders miss in the open field. Every time Ellington touches the ball, he forces a missed tackle 25 percent of the time.
Aside from his elusive nature, Ellington has shown week in and week out that whenever he has the ball in his hands, he has the potential to score at a moment's notice. The touchdowns aren’t quite there yet, but in every game where he has had at least one carry, he has one run of 10 yards or more.
Even though his longest rush of the season came against the Carolina Panthers, in Week 5, his most jaw-dropping run happened in Week 4 versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On a 25-yard scamper down the right sideline, he left All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis in a cloud of dust.
As you can see from the play above, Ellington’s middle name should be "explosive." He has something no other Cardinals running back has—a second gear. When he has room to run, it’s game over for any defender who tries to tackle him one-on-one.
At 3-2, it’s hard not to like what Arians is doing in the desert. Arizona’s draft class is contributing on a weekly basis, its defense is the 15th-best unit in the NFL and the offense is playing better than it did in 2012.
Nonetheless, Arians is doing himself and the Cardinals a disservice by not playing Ellington more. There’s a reason the team’s run game is presently ranked as the 23rd-best rushing attack in the league. As a whole, the Cards’ backfield is averaging 3.5 yards per attempt and 81 yards per game.
Mendenhall has seen a majority of the carries, yet he hasn’t done anything eye-opening as the team’s lead back. Nothing against him, but it’s evident that major injuries from his past have taken a toll on his skill set. The burst he once had is gone, he struggles to pick up yards after contact and he no longer is shifty enough to make tacklers miss.
He still has value as a goal-line back in the red zone, and as a short-yardage back, but that’s it. If Arians wants to jump-start his ground game, he needs to award Ellington with more than four carries a contest. The change-of-pace playmaker needs to touch the ball 15 times a game.
It’s simple; the kid is a game-changer. And game-changers win you ballgames. Injuries are definitely a concern, considering his size, yet as the great Herm Edwards once said, "You play to win the game."
At some point this season, Arizona will need to lean on its rushing attack to win a particular game. Is Mendenhall going to be the guy who wins the Cardinals a game when they need him to? No. Ellington can be and will be that guy. All Arians has to do is give him a chance.
It’s no secret that speed kills in the NFL. Yet, speed alone doesn’t make Ellington the player he is. It’s his rare combination of speed, quickness, acceleration and vision. If you don’t believe me, just ask any member of Carolina’s defense. Few players have the ability to get around the corner and turn on the jets the way Ellington does.
Hats off to Arians and general manager Steve Keim for finding Ellington in the sixth round; however, it’s time to deeply integrate him into the game plan. As soon as they do, there’s no question the Cardinals will form a more formidable presence on the ground.