GLENDALE, Ariz. — Bruce Arians plans to keep his running backs guessing this season. Will they be in single-back formation? Will there be more two-backs sets as he has indicated and shown in camp? Will they line up as receivers?
"I have no idea," top back Andre Ellington said, grinning. "I just come here, see the script, see what plays I have for the day and try to execute those."
Some national analysts have questioned the Cardinals’ 2014 backfield, both for its lack of a true No. 1 back — the Cardinals prefer Ellington (5-9, 199) in space as opposed to between the tackles — and for its lack of established performers. The top three backs on the Cardinals’ depth chart — Ellington (652), Stepfan Taylor (115) and Jonathan Dwyer (197) — didn’t combine for 1,000 yards rushing last season.
Arians probably wouldn’t turn down an Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy or Matt Forte if they came his way, but a feature back is not what this offense is about now that Rashard Mendenhall is gone, and it’s not where the NFL is trending. Only a handful of running backs have averaged 20-plus rushing attempts each of the past six seasons.
Rules changes that benefit the passing game have helped push offenses in that direction, but so has an emphasis on speed in defenses that makes running the ball more difficult.
So when evaluating the Cardinals’ backfield, it’s helpful to evaluate the total package. As a rookie last season, Ellington finished 14th among NFL running backs in receiving yards (371), and he had fewer receptions than any of the players who finished ahead of him.
That figures to change this season. In the offseason, Ellington learned all three receiver positions, marking the first time in his career he lined up at an offensive position other than running back.
"I was a little shocked once I saw the way they were going to use me, but I was excited at the same time," Ellington said. "Having backs that can catch the football adds a lot more to the game."
"Andre could start on our team as wide receiver," Arians added, "so you want to be able to use that skill and still have another back in the game who can do everything else. It’s fun creating things with a player like him."
Arians hinted in the offseason that Ellington could get 25 to 30 touches a game, but somewhere around 20 seems more likely. Some of those touches will come on carries between the tackles. Ellington’s 5.53-yard rushing average led all players with at least 100 attempts last season. But his greatest asset is still his ability in space.
"You get ‘Dre out there against a linebacker or safety, that’s a big mismatch in our favor," Dwyer said.
How those touches will come is anybody’s guess, including the always-experimenting Arians.
"B.A thinks of things on the fly at times where he’ll see something and put us out there," Taylor said. "There’s times where he’ll put us in a different formation that we haven’t installed, and we just have got to go out there and know what it is.
"That’s good. He’s forcing us to not just focus on being a running back. All the players need to know the whole offense."
Taylor, Dwyer and Robert Hughes (and maybe Jalen Parmele) will get some opportunities in the passing game, but the opportunities behind Ellington are more defined.
"Pass protection and pounding the ball, that’s the role we’re looking for (from) a number of guys," Arians said. "The pounding is up for grabs because we’ve got three pretty good ones."
The divvied up responsibilities might not be good for backs who want to shoulder the load, and it might not be helpful when contract negotiations roll around, but it could prolong careers by reducing wear and tear, and it keeps defenses on their toes when they are getting so many different looks from a steady stream of fresh legs.
"I feel like as running backs (the NFL is) evolving more into a running back by committee," Taylor said. "B.A. doesn’t care about your stats. He cares about winning and spreading the ball out. You have to have that mindset and control what you can control."