Cardinals season review: Running backs
JAN 09, 2014 1:49p ET
Over the next several weeks, FOX Sports Arizona will conduct a position-by-position analysis of the Arizona Cardinals, examining their personnel's strengths and weaknesses, the team's free agents at that position and the team's draft or free-agent needs.
Rashard Mendenhall: Knee and foot injuries hampered Mendenhall for at least half the season, so it's hard to get an accurate gauge on his production potential moving forward. Then again, durability was one of the concerns when Mendenhall arrived on a one-year deal coming off Achilles and ACL injuries the previous two years in Pittsburgh. He managed just 687 yards on 217 carries this year, and his 3.2-yard average per carry was the fifth-lowest of the 48 NFL backs who had at least 6.25 carries per game (the cutoff for qualification among the league's leaders). He was often asked to run in the more difficult areas that typically produce less yardage (Andre Ellington ran a lot more in space), and the Cardinals' blocking in those areas wasn't always up to snuff, but he also missed holes and lacked the burst and ability to break tackles until later in the season when he was healthier. Mendenhall is an intelligent, thoughtful guy, but he tends to be a loner, so his locker room presence won't work in his favor as the Cardinals contemplate whether to re-sign the unrestricted free agent. On the other hand, he'll only be 27 when next season opens. There is mileage left if the Cards believe that injuries will not be a consistent problem.
If one season is enough evidence, Ellington is one the best draft-day steals the Cardinals have ever engineered. He is a dynamic playmaker in both the running and receiving games and produced some of the most electric plays of the season, like this 80-yard TD run against the Falcons.
He rushed 118 times for 652 yards and three TDs, and his 5.53-yard average was the highest in the NFL for a running back with at least 50 carries. He also caught 39 balls for 371 yards, making him the Cardinals' fourth-most productive receiver.
By the middle of the season, fans were clamoring for him to start over Mendenhall. Ellington believes he can be a starter, reasoning that he did it at Clemson, but coach Bruce Arians prefers Ellington in space and worries that his body type would not hold up with a higher workload, having experienced that problem with Willie Parker in Pittsburgh. However this situation plays out, Ellington is a keeper.
Taylor didn't get much work aside from special teams, carrying just 36 times for an unimpressive 115 yards. Like Mendenhall, he runs in the tougher areas, so the Cardinals will have to decide if he is ready to replace the veteran or if they need to seek additional help. Taylor was known as a good pass protector at Stanford, but Arians said during the season that he still needed work in that area. He also had his moments as a lead blocker, like here.
Smith was anointed the backup at the start of the season but quickly lost that role and slipped down the depth chart to No. 4 by season's end. He is solid in pass protection, he's a hard-working pro and he's a cheap option, so he could be back.
Williams will be an interesting storyline to watch. He was injured in camp, limiting the reps he could take in preseason. Then he was inactive for all 16 regular-season games, even when Mendenhall and Ellington were injured, making him the only Cardinal not to dress for a single game. The fact that he doesn't play special teams hurt him, although Williams said at one point during the season that he could play special teams if asked and given the opportunity. He is due to make a little over $1 million in base salary in the last year of his deal and will count about $1.6 million against the cap. If the Cardinals release him or trade him, he'll only count $535,000 against the cap.
Mendenhall (unrestricted), Smith (restricted)
This will depend mainly on what the Cardinals decide to do with Mendenhall. He has close ties to Arians from their days together in Pittsburgh, but he wasn't terribly productive this season. It wouldn't be a surprise to see them upgrade while Ellington and Taylor earn greater roles.
It's not unthinkable that the Cards might draft a running back in the later rounds, but since they just selected Ellington and Taylor in the previous draft, there isn't a great need unless they believe they still need an every-down type to run in the tough areas -- something they didn't ask of Ellington and something Taylor hasn't yet proven he can do.
TOP POTENTIAL DRAFT PROSPECTS
Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona; Tre Mason, Auburn; Bishop Sankey, Washington; Lache Seastrunk, Baylor; Charles Sims, West Virginia; Carlos Hyde, Ohio State; Andre Williams, Boston College; Jeremy Hill, LSU; Terrance West, Towson; Marion Grice, Arizona State; Jay Ajayi, Boise State; James Wilder Jr., Florida State; Tyler Gaffney, Stanford; Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky; Jerick McKinnon, Georgia Southern; De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon.