Cardinals backfield a balance of risk, reward

Injuries, contract years provide Cardinals backs Mendenhall, Williams plenty of motivation.

TEMPE, Ariz. — The starting running back is coming off an ACL tear 16 months ago, an Achilles injury that limited him in 2012 and a tiff with his coach that led to his suspension late last season for conduct detrimental to the team.

The No. 2 back is coming off his second straight season-ending injury, has a reconstructed knee that took more than a year to heal and has played just five games since his selection in the second round (38th overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft.

Feeling good about the Arizona backfield? 

Well, before you go getting yourself into a Cardinal kind of funk, consider the potential upside that Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams carry into the 2013 season.

Mendenhall signed a one-year deal worth $2.5 million that includes up to another $1 million in incentives. Williams is entering that critical third year of his contract with little evidence to convince the team that he figures into its long-term plans.

Built-in motivation? Coach Bruce Arians thinks so.

“Yeah, if you want to get paid,” Arians said. “It adds a bunch, because it’s a production business. That part of it is never going to change.”

Arians shares a common bloodline with Williams since both attended Virginia Tech. And he shares a history with Mendenhall, who played for Arians in Pittsburgh.

“Took me to the Super Bowl. What else do you want?” Arians said when asked what convinced him Mendenhall would be a good fit in free agency. “Guy’s a first-round pick, never had a bit of problems and was always an excellent player.”

Mendenhall did have a bit of a problem last season when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin suspended him for a week for failing to show up at Heinz Field for the team's loss to the Chargers on Dec. 9. And it was clear that he fell out of favor with Tomlin last year, when he had just 51 carries for 182 yards.

“I’m not sure what happened,” Mendenhall said. “I didn’t really hear a lot, so I don’t know what was really going on. All I can say is, for me, I’m happy with everything I’ve done to this point, because I’ve always done everything I can or was capable of.”

It’s always a dicey proposition to take a team’s or player’s word for it when they pronounce a clean bill of health. NFL teams aren’t exactly forthright in that area and players have obvious motives, whether financial or upholding the NFL’s macho code.

But in both these running backs’ cases, it seems accurate as the Cardinals roll through their second week of OTAs at their Tempe headquarters. While Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said he never believed Mendenhall was quite right last season — coming off an ACL injury in the 2011 season finale and playing through an Achilles injury — Mendenhall insists it wasn’t the injury that limited him last season.

“It was just a strength thing — trying to get it back in my knee — and that was more of my focus,” he said. “I was pretty cool as far as feeling good out of surgery.”

Williams was anything but cool when he gutted out the first five weeks of the 2012 season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.

“It’s a scary sight being a running back and being scared to run the ball,” Williams said. “It’s sad to say, but honestly, when I hurt my shoulder I was actually happy. The first thing I thought about was getting my knee right.”

Williams had what he termed a two-in-one surgery on the shoulder and the knee to clear out a litany of problems including “knots, sutures and drill holes."

He added, “Instantly — within a week or two — I was able to do things with my knee that I wasn’t able to do during the season. This is the healthiest I’ve felt in the past few years. It finally felt good to run like myself — instinctive.”

Given their size and skill sets, neither fifth-round pick Stepfan Taylor (5-9, 216) nor sixth-round pick Andre Ellington (5-9, 199) screams replacement if Mendenhall and Williams don’t pan out this season. And Mendenhall’s peaceful personality doesn’t lend itself to treating this as an all-or-nothing season, anyway.

“I just take it as it comes,” he said. “It’s business as usual; whatever happens for me this year happens, and we’ll go from there.” 

Williams doesn’t believe he’s facing his last shot “until all 32 teams tell me that I can’t play for them,” but he is clearly using the past and this year’s draft as motivation.

“I could not be mad at all or feel a certain way at all for them drafting the two running backs,” Williams said. “If I had a running back that had a potential career-ending injury, of course I’d bring somebody in. Regardless of what he’s capable of doing, he’s got to show me what he can do on the field, and that’s what I’m going to do this year.”
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