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Finding A Back That Works

Cardinals searching for blocking, durability in the backfield


Running back Ryan Williams breaks off a run against the Eagles last season.

When new Cardinals running backs coach Stump Mitchell was with the Seahawks earlier in his career, he had a young but highly-touted player who wasn't used as much as was first expected because of his inability to pass block.

Shaun Alexander figured it out, though, enough that by 2005 he was NFL MVP with his 1,880 yards rushing and 27 touchdowns on the ground. It helped he could stay on the field.

"He wanted to be a featured back, and he worked extremely hard," Mitchell said.

"You'd really want all the backs you have to see themselves as a first-, second- and third-down back."

The last time the Cardinals took a running back in the draft, Ryan Williams was a surprise second-round pick in 2011 and ultimately replaced Tim Hightower as Beanie Wells' partner. But both Williams and Wells have battled constant injuries.

Former coach Ken Whisenhunt liked the idea of breaking up duties for the backs – adding in LaRod Stephens-Howling as well – new coach Bruce Arians has a different philosophy.

"Backs by committee, one of them gets hurt you've lost half your committee or a third of your committee," Arians said. "I like guys who can play every down."

That's where Mitchell's background weaves in with Arians' outlook. That year Alexander dominated on the ground, he caught just 15 passes. It was about Alexander's ability to protect quarterback Matt Hasselbeck that kept him on the field.

Arians doesn't see his running backs as primary receivers. They will get some receptions, yes, but they are there as an extra line of protection so the quarterback has time to look down the field and complete passes for the "big chunks" the new coach loves so much.

"Can they run the football, do they have vision, patience," Arians asks of his backs. "Second, can they pass protect on second down? Can they pass protect on third down when it really gets complicated?

"Will we throw to the backs? Yeah. But the receivers are the ones paid to catch it."

That would seem to sound an alarm bell for anyone expecting Stephens-Howling – who happened to have the Cardinals' only two 100-yard rushing games last season – to return as he heads toward unrestricted free agency next week. There has been speculation about the Cards looking at the Saints' restricted free agent Chris Ivory or maybe Steelers UFA Rashard Mendenhall, who played for Arians in Pittsburgh. Williams looks like a lock to at least have an opportunity to play this season, but the future of Wells, like many veterans, remains a bit murky as he heads into the last year of his contract.

The draft's top running back available is Alabama's Eddie Lacy, but it would be a surprise to see him be a top seven pick and he might not last until the second round. Besides, the top pick – as far as running backs – doesn't always make the right pick.

Wells was a first-round pick but his injuries have undercut the promise he has shown. Backs – good ones – can be found later. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock rattled off non-first round running backs that have been solid, guys like Baltimore's Ray Rice, Chicago's Matt Forte, Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy, New England's Stevan Ridley and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles.

"Now the question is, when you get dropped into the third and fourth rounds, what you're really getting is one or the other," Mayock said. "You're not getting the three‑down back.  You're getting the guy that's the third‑down, change‑of‑pace guy, or you're getting that bigger back who really doesn't have to burst in acceleration.  What that means is you need two of them. 

"But I do believe you can get quality in the second, third, and fourth round at the running back position."

General manager Steve Keim frequently talks about his philosophy of taking a difference-maker if he is available, and that no spot is too high if a team truly feels that way about a player. Running back is no different.

But that doesn't change what kind of player the Cards would like to have in the backfield.

"That position is different because they take a lot of shots, they take a lot of abuse, there are going to be some injuries," Keim said. "Our mindset I think the pieces of the puzzle we want to add, I think you are looking at the bigger, more durable back to compliment some of the guys we already have on our roster we like."

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