Arizona Cardinals season review and looking ahead: The running backs

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The season in review continues

The Arizona Cardinals had a good and a bad rushing season in 2013.

They gained over 1500 yards rushing as a team, which was a 300-yard increase over 2012. Their efficiency was not much better. After averaging 3.4 yards per carry in 2012, it only improved to 3.6.

They scored 12 rushing touchdowns -- two more than 2012.

They did, though, commit more to running the ball than they have in years past. In fact, in attempting 422 rushes total, they ran the ball over 40 percent of the time on offense. That is the third highest percentage over the last decade for the team.

So let us look at the back on the team and their performance, as well as look at the position moving forward in 2014.

Rashard Mendenhall:

He was, in my Twitter circles and in the ROTB, one of the most frustrating players on the team. He was effective, yet inefficient. He ended up leading the team in rushing yards with 687 and eight touchdowns, but averaged only 3.2 yards per carry.

He was the workhorse of a shared workload, as he carried the ball 217 times -- almost 100 more carries than rookie Andre Ellington, who we learned was the team's most dynamic player on offense.

He rarely was stopped for negative yards -- only 15 in his over 200 carries. However, 105 of his 218 carries gained between zero and two yards.

He was the back that Bruce Arians trusted to be the number one, in part because of his contributions in pass blocking. He was not fantastic, but he wasn't an abomination.

Andre Ellington:

Ellington was the star of the offense. He was the most productive player, but only carried the ball 118 times. He gained 652 yards (35 less than Mendenhall on 99 less carries), averaging 5.5 yards per carry.

He was fantastic.

He was more likely to get stopped for negative yards. In his 118 carries, he was tackled for a loss 15 times -- the same number as Mendenhall. He was a big play threat, though, as 24 of his 118 carries went for at least 10 yards. Eight went for over 20 yards.

He was also a big threat in the passing game, as he was used as a receiver as well.

He is not viewed by the team as an every down back. Bruce Arians said on multiple occasions that Ellington is a 30-35 play back/receiver, who should get 15-20 touches in ideal settings.

Stepfan Taylor:

He carried the ball only 36 times all season and 14 of those came in one game when Mendenhall did not play. he was a lot like Mendenhall, averaging 3.2 yards per carry (identical to Mendy), getting tackled for a loss only twice, but nearly half his carries (14) went between 0-2 yards.

He got more playing time down the stretch and was a reliable pass blocker.

Alfonso Smith:

Smith carried the ball only 18 times on the season and scored a touchdown. 10 of those carries, though, came in Week 1. His last carry of the season was in Week 6 when he fumbled the ball in the fourth quarter against the 49ers.

His role was on special teams and was, for many weeks, the team's "third down back," or running back pass blocker.

He did see his playing time on offense diminish down the stretch as Taylor's earned more time.

Ryan Williams:

He was inactive for all 16 games -- the only player on the team not to dress for a game.

Fans have wondered about him all season, but have only gotten the answer that since he doesn't play on special teams he doesn't dress. He never once appeared on the injury report all season, so he was healthy the entire year.

His future is uncertain. I speculated that he was on the roster because general manager Steve Keim wants him there.

Looking forward:

This offseason, Mendenhall is an unrestricted free agent and Smith is a restricted free agent.

Taylor and Ellington are cheap and under contract, entering their second season as fifth and sixth-round picks.

Williams' contract is more. He is entering the final season of his rookie contract, but is due just over $1M in salary for 2014 and a has a cap hit of almost $1.6 million.

Considering how little money they have locked up outside of him, he may be safe.

The question will be whether the team will re-sign Mendenhall. He was on a one-year, $2.5 million deal.

What makes sense in theory is to let him go because Taylor seem to be the exact same player, only younger and less expensive.

Taylor and Ellington are locks for the roster. They potentially could be the tandem in the running game the team goes with moving forward.

Williams is the wild card. He is talented enough to be a number one back.

Smith, while a restricted free agent, will not likely receive any tender and the team might not bring him back. As a back of the lineup running back, he does have value in what he does well -- play on special teams and pick up the blitz.

2014 roster predictions:

I think that Williams gets his final shot this season, so he will be back along with Taylor and Ellington. I don't think Mendenhall will be re-signed, although if he were, it wouldn't surprise me.

I predict the backs will be Ellington, Taylor, Williams and either Smith or another special teams-type player who can block to fill that number four spot.

The wild card would be if the team drafts another running back, in which case I would think would signal the end of Ryan Williams.

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