It appears to have been an offseason of change for the Arizona Cardinals at the running back position. While only two running backs from last year are not returning and three (Ryan Williams, William Powell and Alfonso Smith) are, about 63 percent of Arizona’s carries went to players not currently on the roster. Williams is coming off season-ending injury, again. Fortunately for the Cardinals, most people think the 2012 shoulder injury was a blessing in disguise for Williams so he could continue rehabbing and recovering from his devastating ruptured patella tendon in 2011.
The new faces are Rashard Mendenhall, a 25-year old “veteran” who signed a one-year deal, Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington. They will combine with the three returning backs and enter a somewhat wide-open competition that starts this week at OTAs.
Let’s start with Mendenhall. He was hampered last year coming back from a torn ACL in 2011 and achilles issues in 2012. He should be completely healthy heading into 2013, and he would appear to have a firm grasp on the starting running back slot from day 1. He has a few things going for him on this. He is a three-down back, knows coach Bruce Arians’ system from his time with Arians in Pittsburgh and had undoubtedly his best years thus far under Arians while in Pittsburgh. His playing time will depend on health, whether he can hang onto the football, and the progression of the rookies.
Now, let’s talk about Williams. Williams has shown flashes of the quickness and vision that were his strengths coming out Virginia Tech in 2011, but he has also had trouble staying healthy. Therefore, durability is Williams’ main issue. Unlike years past, the Cardinals have a few running backs on the roster that do not have a history of injuries. If Williams cannot stay healthy, it will most likely be his last season as an Arizona Cardinal. I am a fan of Williams for what he has gone through, and it would be nice to see him stay on the field this year.
Taylor completed an illustrious career at Stanford this past year. Over his four-year college career; he rushed for 4,300 yards, 40 touchdowns, and averaged over 5 yards per carry (YPC). He is also still attending classes and will complete his degree this summer. He is a three-down back, has great pass protection skills, intelligent football IQ and only fumbled once in his college career. Oh, and he never missed a game due to injury. Taylor has the potential to be a steal for the Cardinals as a fifth-round pick, and in my opinion, he is the strongest competitor to Mendenhall for immediate playing time.
Ellington, a rookie out of Clemson, also has the potential to be a steal for the Cardinals in the sixth round. He has elite breakaway speed with great vision. Ellington earned second-team All-ACC honors in 2011 and first-team All-ACC honors in 2012. He had some injury issues in his first two years but only missed one game due to injury in his junior and senior years.
The other two holdovers from the 2012 Arizona Cardinals, Powell and Smith, have both shown flashes in preseason (albeit against inferior talent) before, but the fact remains that Powell was a fourth-string back last year and only accumulated 217 rushing yards. Alfonso Smith did not record a carry last season and that is telling considering the running back conundrum the Cardinals had last year. Neither of them is very good at pass protection, and that is the reason why Kevin Kolb went down against Buffalo. A missed assignment by Powell forced Kolb to scramble out immediately on the fateful play. I believe these two are camp bodies, nothing more.
The Arizona Cardinals will likely carry four running backs; Mendenhall, Williams, Taylor and Ellington. If durability issues exit the equation, there are many reasons to believe the future is bright for Cardinals running backs.