November 24, 2012; Pasadena, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor (33) breaks away from the UCLA Bruins defense for a touchdown in the first half of the game at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Cardinals: Breaking Down the Running Backs

November 24, 2012; Pasadena, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor (33) breaks away from the UCLA Bruins defense for a touchdown in the first half of the game at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever an NFL football team has multiple years with a losing record, often times it causes teams to think about reshuffling their cards, and sometimes, these changes can be quite drastic.  This is precisely what has happened to the Arizona Cardinals this offseason.

These changes started at the top and trickled down all the way to the bottom. They started with the replacement of a general manager, head coach and trickled down to massive changes with player personnel.

With multiple losing seasons, there are usually glaring weaknesses (player personnel) that are very difficult to ignore.  After the huge disappointment of last season, the most glaring weaknesses for the Cardinals typically were widely recognized to be at the quarterback position as well as up front on the offensive line.  However, there was also another major hole extremely noticeable (last season) on the offensive side of the ball that needed to be addressed and would be addressed.

That was at the running back position.  However, it was not for a lack of talent at the position. It was simply because the Cardinals could not keep their top two running backs (on the depth chart) healthy and on the field.

In fact, the Cardinals just simply could not keep Beanie Wells or Ryan William on the field for the last couple seasons.  This has caused sweeping changes this year for the Redbirds at the position.

As Cardinal fans already know, these was not the only sweeping holes that needed to be addressed (and were addressed) this off-season, to say the least.  However, for the sake of this discussion, I will attempt to breakdown the current running backs on the Cardinals roster.

I will also attempt to breakdown the running back position in the same order that I view the depth chart. Here is my detailed projected depth-chart for game one September 8, against our division rival the St Louis Rams.

October 7, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) hands off to Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall (34) against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I believe the day one starter for the Redbirds will be Rashard Mendenhall.  As mentioned in a previous article, with Mendenhall’s familiarity with new head coach Bruce Arians’ offense, he is a shoe-in to be the day one starter at the position.

Mendenhall was the starting running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers while Arians was the offensive coordinator (2009-2011). So, there is a certain level of trust and comfort between the two that cannot be denied.  In fact, that is the main reason Arians reached out to the running back and brought him in to the fold.

Mendenhall is a three-down back that is a terrific pass blocker in passing situations.  At 5’10” and 230 pounds he is a powerful back that has the power to run between the tackles and the speed and quickness to break long runs.

Earlier this offseason, Arians made a statement about the type of running back Mendenhall is:  Mentioning that “he is a 230 pound back that has the foot quickness of a 180 pound back.”  This in a nutshell pretty much explains why Mendenhall will start the season as the day one starter.  He is a proven back who has run for more than 1000 yards on multiple occasions.  Let’s see if he can do again.

October 4, 2012; St. Louis, MO, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back Ryan Williams (34) carries the ball for a four yard gain during the first half against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Second on the depth chart day one should be Ryan Williams.  Having said that, he will be hard pressed or pushed by a couple of incoming rookies this year, especially if he cannot stay healthy.  Which has been a huge issue for him since he was drafted a couple of years ago.  This is his third and final season (I believe) if he does not prove durable enough to play the position.

Listed at 5’9” and 212 pounds, Williams is an extreme talent, If it wasn’t for his incredible potential, he would probably be long gone by now. Williams was the first running back taken in the 2011 NFL Draft, which happened to be the sixth pick in the second round.  He has a very rare combination of tremendous quickness and speed in and out of traffic that can also run between the tackles and the foot quickness to break loose for a long run.  However, he has yet to prove it on the field do too a couple freaky injuries that he has suffered the first two years with the Cardinals.  Let’s see if he can finally get over these unfortunate injuries and finally prove himself on the field.  This is a very crucial year for him.

Jan 1, 2013; Pasadena, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor (33) is tackled by Wisconsin Badgers defensive lineman Beau Allen (96) and defensive back Marcus Cromartie (14) during the 2013 Rose Bowl game at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Third on the depth chart is a rookie from the Stanford Cardinals, Stepfan Taylor.  Taylor is a back that I’m extremely high on.  In my opinion, he has a great chance before the end of the season to supplant Mendenhall for the starting position.  I was truly lucky to have had the opportunity to watch Taylor several times over the last few years, because he played in the Pacific 12 conference. I was able to watch this marvelous runner dominate against the likes of the UCLA, USC and ASU.

The 22 year old rookie, listed at 5’9” and 215 pounds, has been an extremely durable back out of Stanford.  I believe he has bell cow written all over him. He has the ability to be a true work horse/bell cow type of back the Cardinals could put in the backfield on all three downs and not have to worry about game after game.

He is an extremely intelligent back who has incredibly thick and powerful lower body strength with great instincts to find the open hole between the tackles and a tremendous nose for the end-zone.  He also has a very surprising second gear between the tackles that can get away and power through would be tacklers.

If it were not for a disappointing timed 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Taylor would have been drafted much higher than the fifth round (140th overall).  Taylor posted a disappointing 4.7 time at the NFL Combine in February that could not be ignored by most clubs.

So yes his timed forty was not very impressive.  Although after watching him in person and on tape (on several occasions), It is my belief this will not be reflective of his speed with pads on in-between the lines.  In fact, Taylor kind of reminds me of former Cardinal great, Anquan Boldin.  Boldin also had a poor timed forty at the NFL combine and it also dropped him in the draft a bit as well.

However, a stop watch just cannot judge a man’s football IQ, his instincts for the game, his heart and his football talent.  I strongly believe that way too much emphasis (at times) can be put on a timed forty yard dash and a pair of gym shorts at the NFL Combine. Look for Taylor to work his way up the depth chart very quickly this year.  As far as I am concerned, Mendenhall better stay healthy, because if he doesn’t, watch out for this bell cow type of back pushing him for playing time this year.

Nov 24, 2012; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers running back Andre Ellington (23) carries the ball during the second quarter of the game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Forth on the depth chart is a rookie from Clemson, Andre Ellington.  Listed at 5’9” and 199 pounds, Ellington was selected by the Cardinals in the sixth round and 187th overall.  After the Cardinals picked Taylor a round earlier, he was very much a surprise pick by the Red Birds. However, Ellington was another player that many projected to be a much higher pick than he was.  Many pundits and draft experts predicted him to go as high as the third round.  However for one reason or another he was still sitting there when it was the Cardinals turn to pick in the sixth round, so the Cardinals decided he was a player that they just could not pass on.

Ellington is a very unique back that is very dangerous in open space and can make extremely quick and sudden cuts and has very smooth and exciting acceleration.  I believe he is more of a perimeter back who can be very dynamic and complimentary in the Cardinals backfield, especially in third downs situations or as a change of pace back.  He is a running back that can be used on sweeps, quick (bubble) screens or in the short passing game.

Ellington has had a lot of success and experience (at Clemson) on special teams, specifically on kickoff returns, so I can definitely see him being utilized there.  However, I am not sure he can be a three down back early on.  In my opinion, this is probably why he dropped a bit in the draft. Although, perhaps he will prove me wrong.

Overall, the Cardinals made some exciting and yet sweeping changes to their back-field this off-season.    The Red Birds added one running back in free agency in Mendenhall (projected to be the day one starter), two in this year’s NFL Draft (Taylor and Ellington) and one incumbent player in Williams.  This looks to be a very dynamic group with unique and diverse skills sets.  I believe, if used properly (which I believe Arians will), the Cardinals can use all of them in one capacity or another to create match-up problems in a variety of different formations (ways) depending on the situation.

However, early on (stated previously) look for Mendenhall to get the bulk of the carries, because Arians has trust in the running back (having played for Arians in Pittsburgh) and he loves a back that can play all three downs. Also, look for both rookies to possibly make their way up the depth chart sooner rather than later.  I predict Taylor will surprise early and put the pressure on Mendenhall for playing time.

I also believe by mid-season Arians will also utilize Ellington in certain situations, as a change of pace back, such as on bubble screens and sweeps to get him outside in open space.  As for Williams, let’s see if he can stay healthy and finally prove that he was worthy of being the first running back taken in the draft.  He has the skill set to be a terrific three down back, but has yet to prove it on the field.

Finally, look for the Cardinals to keep these four running backs on the active 53 man roster.  It will be very interesting and exciting to see how all this will play out this summer in training camp.





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