Cardinals season preview: Running backs

TEMPE, Ariz. – The Cardinals haven’t finished ranked among the NFL’s upper half in rushing since 2002 (15th), and they’ve only done it four times since moving to the Valley in 1988: 11th in 1993, 12th in 1990, 13th in 1988.
Granted, rushing totals aren’t the predictor of success they once were in the NFL. The Cardinals went to a Super Bowl despite the league’s worst rushing attack in the 2008 regular season. But that wasn’t by design.
Whether it was due to age (Emmitt Smith, Edgerrin James’ final two seasons), injuries (Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams) or poor run blocking by the much-maligned offensive line, the Cards have not had much success establishing offensive balance. 
The Cards added Rashard Mendenhall in free agency and drafted two backs, Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington, to help address the problem this season. But the loss of first-round pick and starting left guard Jonathan Cooper (broken leg) for the season won’t help a unit that finished dead last in 2012 (75.2 yards per game), and there are plenty of concerns with the current cast of backs.
Starter: Mendenhall
Backup: Williams
Reserves: Taylor, Ellington, Alfonso Smith
Who’s new? Mendenhall (free agency), Taylor (5th round, 140th overall), Ellington (6th round, 187th overall).
Why sign Mendenhall? The Cards signed Mendenhall to a one-year, $2.5 million deal (with up to another $1 million in incentives), so there’s not much financial risk. But there is risk. If the knee issues that cropped up during the preseason become chronic, the Cards could once again find themselves without a top back. Mendenhall is only 26, so there isn’t a lot of mileage on his body. He was a productive back when coach Bruce Arians was in Pittsburgh, topping 900 yards three times and 1,000 yards twice. He’s also an excellent pass blocker, a prerequisite to playing in Arians’ vertical passing attack. But his injury history (torn ACL, Achilles) and Ryan Williams’ injury resume may be part of the reason Arians chose to keep five backs for a one-back offense.
Can Williams ever be what we thought he might be? Knee and shoulder injuries have limited Williams to five games in his first two NFL seasons, and he missed much of training camp with issues in the same knee in which he suffered a torn patellar tendon that cost him his rookie year. Arians insists Williams is ready to go for the season opener, and he ran hard in the preseason finale against Denver, but teams rarely divulge the true extent of a player’s injury. It is quite possible that Williams will never again display the explosiveness he did in rookie-year training camp. It’s also quite possible the Cards are attempting to showcase him for a trade, although it’s hard to imagine any team giving up more than a late-round pick for a back with Williams’ history.
What about the rookies? Despite his height (5-9), Taylor (216 pounds) is more of a power back, a skill that suited him well in Stanford’s physical running game. But he’s also a fairly advanced pass blocker, and that will serve him well in terms of reps in this offense. Ellington is more of a slasher — a change-of-pace back who may struggle to find time other than special teams.
Does Alfonso Smith have a legitimate opportunity? Smith ran well in the preseason, and it’s hard not to root for such a humble, hard-working player who has overcome so much. Smith will gets his reps on special teams, but his best shot at significant carries in the backfield could hinge on the health of Mendenhall and Williams. 
Outlook: The Cards cut ties with Wells because he couldn’t stay healthy, but their injury issues are from resolved. If Mendenhall and Williams can stay healthy the Cards have a chance to showcase a versatile backfield, but that’s a big if. Chances are, at some point this season, they’ll be relying on a pair of rookies and an inexperienced veteran who just won’t quit.