Injuries sidetracked running back Andre Ellington in 2014, but the Cardinals plan to make him the focal point of the offense again.
INDIANAPOLIS – Steve Keim would watch the plays Andre Ellington made early in the 2014 season – even after Ellington hurt his foot, but before Ellington's body completely betrayed him – and the Cardinals General Manager saw why the Cards see Ellington as a difference-maker.
The Cardinals made the running back the centerpiece of the offense last season, a plan that was undercut by Ellington's injuries. They weren't the only team. Dependence on a singular running back has waned in the NFL but it was evident in the postseason. DeMarco Murray, Eddie Lacy, Marshawn Lynch (and the painful absence of Le'Veon Bell) all were noticeable in a workhorse role.
"If you have a guy who is your horse, and there have been some good ones the last couple of years, you ride them," Arians
Ellington is "still the focal point of our offense," Arians said. He will still be a guy who will be more involved in the passing game assuming he is healthy. Ellington played with a "split tendon" in his foot which essentually prevented him from practicing most of the season, at least until a core injury forced abdomen surgery and sidelined him the final four games of the season.
The Cardinals want to "shore up" the running back position this offseason, Keim said, but it seems unlikely that would mean spending an early pick on one.
Ellington doesn't fall into the category of workhorse – Arians said you still need a couple of guys at the position – and even with the proliferation of heavy workers, it probably won't change the league's wider view.
"When you get a bellcow, like an Adrian Peterson or some of these other guys, when you get those elite backs, they've gone high in the draft," Keim said. "Maybe the talent wasn't as good at the top end of the draft (in recent years.) That might have played a role in devaluing the backs as well, particularly with the short lifespan of a back and the injuries at that position.
"More than anything, aside from having dynamic ability it's important to have dependability. Having that guy healthy is so important."
The running back many consider the most talented in this draft is Georgia's Todd Gurley – who just happens to have torn his knee in the fall. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon is another player who has been discussed as a potential first-rounder after his record-breaking college career, although he already has had a lot of carries.
Maybe someone can sneak in as an early draft pick – there has not been a first-round runner since 2012 – but the odds remain against it.
"It's a passing game," Gordon said. "It's hard to say if we're a devalued position. Teams are just going with the picks they
It doesn't mean teams can just plug in anyone to play. The Cowboys would like to bring back Murray, who is a free-agent-to-be. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Seattle is working "in earnest" to get a contract extension done with Lynch. The Steelers were done when Bell missed a playoff game with a knee injury.
"The runner isn't the only one who is part of running the football," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who had Murray lead the league in rushing. "Controlling the line of scrimmage is big. We've made a lot of organizational emphasis over the last few years to use our resources to shore up that offensive line. But the runner does matter."
Arians said the Cardinals may not have been hurt by the loss of any player more than Jonathan Dwyer, who was placed on the reserve list last season after being arrested. The coach praised Kerwynn Williams coming on at the end of the season, and Stepfan Taylor as well (noting Taylor's ability on special teams.)
Ellington said recently he was healing well. His health shouldn't be an issue heading into offseason work. But the Cardinals won't make it all about him. Not after seeing what life was like without him.
"You have to lean on the running game moreso than a back," Arians said.
Images of draft prospects working out at the NFL Scouting combine in Indianapolis