Running back Andre Ellington (38) talks with fellow back Robert Hughes during a recent practice.
It was rare for any early offseason discussion of the Cardinals to not involve the names Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon.
The former was the disgruntled Vikings star who was linked to the Cards in trade rumors. The latter pair was the highest-rated running backs in the draft.
But the offseason came and went, and General Manager Steve Keim did not make a head-turning move at the position. While David Johnson was drafted in the third round out of Northern Iowa, there's no guarantee how many carries he will receive as a rookie.
When the team reconvened for summer workouts, coach Bruce Arians didn't take long to anoint Andre Ellington his unquestioned starter. While there are concerns on the outside, the Cardinals brass seems convinced last year's injury-marred campaign -- a foot injury affected him early, then a hip injury, and core surgery ended his season after Week 13 -- can be a blip and not a death knell in Ellington's hopes of being the focal point of the offense.
"His injuries were so significant that it was amazing that he even gutted through and played with it," Keim said. "I see him now. He's gotten bigger up top and gotten stronger. I think he's made a lot of strides with his physical preparation. He's extremely hungry, and he wants to prove people wrong, that he can stay healthy and he can be a guy that can play 16 games and into the playoffs.
"From an organizational standpoint, we're counting on the guy. It's unbelievable to still go back and when I look at the games where he played and the games he didn't play and the difference he makes, how dynamic he is with the ball in his hands. I'd put him up there with a lot of the other play-makers in the league. I think the guy's special as a ball-carrier and as a receiver. But the million dollar question is, can he stay healthy?"
That concern has already reared its head in camp. Ellington has sat out the majority of practices with a hamstring injury, although Arians shrugged off Ellington's missed time thus far. The former sixth-round pick set the world on fire as a rookie in 2013, averaging a league-best 5.5 yards-per-carry as a complement to starter Rashard Mendenhall. But in his first attempt to be the star last year, Ellington finished with only 660 rushing yards on 201 attempts for a 3.3 yards-per-carry average.
"I have a lot to prove," Ellington said. "My first year is over with. That's two years ago."
The selection of Johnson and the emergence of Kerwynn Williams gives the Cardinals some other options to run the ball, if they so desire. Arians, though, has not even hinted of a change at the top. He, Ellington and Keim attribute last year's ineffectiveness almost solely to the injuries, and there's a strong belief a healthy Ellington can again be a nightmare for defenses.
Arians wants to get him 20 touches per game this season, a high number considering all the other weapons on offense.
"He feels faster than he's ever been," Arians said. "He's stronger than he's been. And like he said, it's nice to play with two feet."
Not only did the physical pain affect Ellington in 2014, so did the worry of aggravating the injuries. As fellow running back Stepfan Taylor said, a clear mind is essential for running backs because "once you hesitate, it's a wrap." Ellington never felt truly free, as the foot injury surfaced right before the opener against the Chargers and continued to linger, then was compounded with other issues.
"I wasn't able to be myself," Ellington said. "I had those injuries in the back of my mind and that slowed me down a bit."
It's fair to wonder if Ellington, listed at 5-foot-9 and 199 pounds, is durable enough to withstand the rigors of an entire season as the featured back. That should come into focus soon, and if he can't, maybe he will be better served as a Darren Sproles type – extremely effective, but on a limited basis.
When asked about his role, Ellington defers to Arians.
"I'm willing to do anything coach wants me to do," Ellington said. "That's my role. Whatever my role is, I'm going to play it well."
That was the good soldier within him talking, but even dating back to when he was just a late-round draft flier, Ellington has always felt like he should be the one leading the cavalry. A down season has not affected his psyche.
"Of course," said Ellington when asked if he can still be the bellcow running back, "because I know what I can do when the ball is in my hands."
Images from the Cardinals' Red and White Practice on Saturday