The Cardinals want to add a back to pair with Andre Ellington (38). But will it come from the draft? Trade? Free agency?
Adding a running back is not in question for the Cardinals. General Manager Steve Keim made that clear right before the Scouting combine.
"We definitely need to shore up that position," Keim said.
It was not a thought Keim kept to himself, and with Andre Ellington's injuries last season, it hasn't been difficult to make the Cardinals an object of speculation at the position. At first, the Cardinals were the team linked to free agents, guys like DeMarco Murray or C.J. Spiller. As they came off the board, the rumor mill threw in Adrian Peterson and his displeasure in Minnesota, and a potential trade there. As days move on, the upcoming draft will only intensify the need to connect the Cardinals with many of the deep well of quality running backs this class contains.
When you factor in money and the punishment absorbed at the position – as well as the presence of Ellington – the Cards looking
toward the draft fits Keim's philosophy.
It isn't as if Keim won't sign a free agent running back. The Cardinals signed Jonathan Dwyer last year to work in tandem with Ellington, and it was a pairing that worked well for two games, before Dwyer's off-the-field troubles ended his tenure. Dwyer was a big back the team sorely missed, coach Bruce Arians said.
Finding another bigger back to pair with Ellington has been the goal. They don't have him yet.
VIA FREE AGENCY
Last year, Dwyer signed by now. The Cardinals were never in on the bigger name backs in free agency and by now, few remain. One intriguing remaining name who figures to come cheap is former Patriot Stevan Ridley – although he would come cheap in part because he is coming off a torn ACL and going in that direction doesn't seem like it makes a lot of sense. Trent Richardson is available and young, although his first few years have been rough in terms of production.
Any back on the market now would be cheaper and given the depth of the draft, might be in a spot where they will have to wait until after teams have a shot at this draft class.
Already, there are reports that the Cardinals have visited with Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Indiana's Tevin Coleman – and those are
just a couple of the running backs that a team could take in the first three or four rounds that could aid the Cardinals' run game.
NFLdraftscout.com has 12 running backs they peg that could be taken in the top three rounds of the draft. Usually, some players drop, and the Cards could conceivably wait even later. Maybe taking a risk on Georgia's Todd Gurley – who would undoubtedly be the first back taken if not for the ACL tear he suffered, and still could be the first back off the board – isn't worth it. Maybe Gordon is gone. There are others, like Miami's Duke Johnson or Boise State's Jay Ajayi, for example.
The benefit of the draft is that the Cardinals could have younger legs at a fraction of the cost. Last year's 55th overall pick – where the Cards choose this year – just happened to be a pretty good running back, Jeremy Hill, who was picked by the Bengals. Hill's contract of four years was worth about $3.8 million, and his rookie year cap number was only $683,000, less than any veteran would cost.
Hill's money would certainly be less than what it would cost to bring in Peterson, and that's even if the Cardinals can swing a trade. The upside of a player like Peterson, of course, is his immense talent; No one in the draft is expected to have the kind of success in the NFL Peterson has had.
The Cardinals have to find a back somewhere. Ellington was dealing with his foot injury even before the regular season started, yet early in the year Keim said just watching him "you realize he can be a difference-maker." The Cards still want to get their use out of Ellington, and that includes as a receiver – a part of the playbook rarely tapped in 2014 because Ellington's injuries made it too difficult to implement such work in practice.
At some point, Keim will pull the trigger on an Ellington partner. What direction he chooses to go will have an impact not only on the field but also on the salary cap and the next few years of the Cardinals' running game.
The top rushers on the Cardinals in 2014