Veterans Tim Hightower (34) and Beanie Wells (26) will fight for playing time with each other and rookie Ryan Williams this season.
Where does Ryan Williams fit?
That's the question hovering around the Cardinals' running backs since the day the team surprisingly chose Williams, the Virginia Tech product, with their second-round draft pick. While the Cards have more pressing needs in the immediate aftermath of the offseason labor dispute – like quarterback and offensive line and linebacker – no position battle may be as fascinating as the one in the backfield.
Mathematically, Williams works if veteran Jason Wright – a free agent who had hinted at retirement – doesn't return. The Cards have used four backs (plus a fullback) the past few years and there is proven room for Tim Hightower, Beanie Wells, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Williams.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt even pointed out the need for multiple backs last year, when injuries stole practice time and a few games from Wright, Stephens-Howling and Wells.
Realistically, however, the dynamic says that some kind of change is on the horizon.
While it has always been mild, both Hightower and Wells have made it known in the past they wished they could get more touches. Spreading the ball around was hard enough, and that was with Wright – a special teamer who played little at running back – and not Williams. Teams don't spend second-round picks on backs and use them in a Wright-like role.
Wells looked like he was headed for stardom down the stretch in his rookie season, when he began getting more carries than Hightower. A preseason knee injury set him back last year, however, and, mixing in offensive line and quarterback issues, he never reached the level of play he had shown in 2009.
Hightower's rushing stats were a career-best in 2010, but there was concern his blocking wasn't as effective and fumbling the ball remained a problem. Hightower also has an expiring contract, and while he could be a restricted free agent – assuming free-agency rules revert to their 2009 concept, when three seasons meant RFA status – his long-term outlook in Arizona remains cloudy.
Whisenhunt said after Williams was selected that it was no direct reflection on either Hightower or Wells, and mentioned only that heavy competition will make for a better running back group as a whole. Certainly the battle between backs will be intense (although the lack of offseason work for Williams due to the lockout would figure to set him back). The other question is who can play special teams, given that – assuming all three remain on the roster, along with Stephens-Howling – someone will have to help in other places than just as a running back.
Fullback is murky too. The Cards took Anthony Sherman in the fifth round of the draft, and he has shown a special-teams aptitude. If he can earn the starting job ahead of veterans like Reagan Maui'a and Nehemiah Broughton, that will streamline the roster some.
The running back competition will overshadow that scenario regardless. Improved quarterback play should help both Hightower and Wells in a quest to better themselves in 2011. But how quickly Williams gets himself into the playing time mix will have greater impact on what happens with Hightower and Wells this season (both have been popular speculative choices by fans in a potential Kevin Kolb trade) and going forward.
KEY PLAYER IN 2011: Beanie Wells. Impressive rookie season but never quite got on track last year. He promised for this season, he was going to "tear it up. It's my time and I am ready to go out and prove that." I think the Cards are viewing it the same way.
CONSIDER THIS: Stephens-Howling provided key needed spark in his limited touches out of the backfield. But if the Cards want to keep using him as a kickoff returner (which they may not, depending on Patrick Peterson's emergence) and coverage ace on special teams, they may not want to use him much more on offense. Besides, that's one less mouth to feed when it comes to splitting up the touches.
ROSTER CHANGE CHANCES ON 1-10 SCALE: About a 2. Chances seem strong – unless a back is used in a trade – that the Cards will stick with this roster for the season, while Williams learns the NFL game. The actual monetary cost of keeping all the backs isn't high, relatively. And like Whisenhunt noted, injuries have been a part of the equation at the position.