The running back situation for the Arizona Cardinals is an absolute mess. Speculating who will start for the 2013 -14 season is as easy as speculating whether the NBA cheated the Phoenix Suns out of a better draft pick last night in the NBA lottery. Whether Bruce Arians chooses between one of the two tenured NFL Players, Ryan Williams and Rashard Mendenhall, or decides to go with one of two new rookies in Stepfan Taylor or Andre Ellington, the running back who wins the job will be given a short leash.
Arians has said he wants a running back who can carry the full load of the running game. Mendenhall and Williams both have major injury concerns and may not be able to produce at the same level that they once were able to. On the other hand, Taylor and Ellington provide potential growth and an optimistic future for the run game. Unfortunately, potential and optimism don’t win NFL players starting jobs. Each of these four running backs will start training camp with a blank slate and the same expectations to win the job.
Mendenhall is the most proven running back. He produced three quality seasons in a row for the team in black and gold that shall not be named, rushing for 1108 yards in 2009, 1273 in 2010 and 928 in 2011 before he was sidelined with a torn ACL. That ACL tear combined with five seasons of NFL abuse causes concern for the organization and its fans. The positive of Mendenhall’s signing is that he signed a one-year deal, making him expendable.
That one year deal, however, provides Mendenhall with all the incentive he needs to succeed next year. He anticipates a full comeback with the ability to produce at his prime level. While it will be more difficult behind an unproven Cardinals offensive line, his production can’t possibly be as bad as Beanie Wells falling down every time he reached an offensive lineman.
In other words, if he can stay healthy he will have every opportunity to succeed.
“Can I stay healthy?” has to be something Williams asks himself every day. Since the Cardinals selected him with their second-round pick in 2011, he has only managed to play in five games, all coming in 2012. Whether it was bad luck or the previous coaching staff pushing him to hard after his first injury, Williams averaged a measly 2.8 yards per carry on the 58 carries he had last year.
Williams will need to forget about his first two years and find confidence in a new scheme and coaching staff. The organization will not wait past this year for him to get healthy and produce. By all accounts Williams is a nice guy, with an exceptional head on his shoulder. Unfortunately for him, those qualities don’t win games and the Cardinals drafted two running backs this year.
Stephan Taylor comes in to this season with the better pedigree of the two rookies. At Stanford he set the career rushing record while playing all four years. Last year was by far and away his best.
Without Andrew Luck at the helm for the first time in his career, he managed to rush for 1,530 yards and 13 touchdowns. His 322 carries last season are one more than the three other running backs on the Cardinals managed all last season combined.
While the large amount of rushing attempts plays into Arians’ desire for a single feature running back, all those carries had to have taken a toll on his body last year. A year to rest his laurels while learning the faster paced NFL game may be best for him. He isn’t the fastest running back and watching defenses from the sidelines may better prepare him to utilize his skill set at the next level. But, if Mendenhall falters he may get a chance before Ryan Williams does to start for the Cardinals.
At Clemson, Ellington was a star running back. In Arizona, Ellington will have to fight veteran William Powell for a spot on the roster. Given that the Cardinals spent a draft pick on him this year he probably has a little more leeway than Powell does.
In 2012 Ellington was a stud. He rushed for 1,081 yards in 212 carries for a 5.1 yard average. He’s faster than Taylor and reminds me of Williams when he came out of the draft.
He has a lot to prove at the NFL level, however, and like Taylor, he has a lot to learn. Right now he is last on the pecking order and the least likely to start. However, once training camp starts, who knows what he will bring to the table and he, just like all the other running backs have a fighting chance.
A fighting chance is the theme of this year’s running back competition. Mendenhall and Williams have a fighting chance to rejuvenate their injury plagued careers, while at the same time Taylor and Ellington will use their fighting chances to try and jump start their careers.
Training camp and the preseason will dictate who wins the job, but until then, Mendenhall is the best and most logical choice for the Cardinals. His desire to reclaim his status as one of the NFL’s best running backs and the extra time his knee has had to recover from his 2011 injury should help him secure the job for now.