The Arizona Cardinals entered the 2009 draft with a significant need at running back and in response they book-ended their picks with a first round power back and a seventh round small and shifty back. As you'd expect their big first round back, Chris Wells, is expected to have a much larger impact on the Cardinals immediate future than their seventh round pick, but LaRod Stephens-Howling might surprise some people before it's all over. Of course he's already surprised quite a few scouts simply by being drafted.
LSH, a tiny player by NFL standards (5-7, 180), played his final two seasons at the University of Pittsburgh in the shadow of LeSean McCoy after leading the Panthers in rushing in his freshman and sophomore seasons. Despite contributing from a backup role, LSH was a consistent contributor who was awarded the team's Most Inspirational Player as a senior. He racked up stats as a runner, receiver and kick returner during his career and was known as an extremely hard worker who always did whatever he was asked. Despite his small stature, he's packed on quite a bit of muscle and was not limited to running outside the tackles in college. His size makes him hard to locate behind the line and he's a very cerebral player capable of learning multiple positions and mastering difficult assignments. As a runner LSH has tremendous speed (4.41 at Pitt's pro day) as well as an exceptional burst and shiftiness. He's an accomplished receiver and even lined up as a wide out at Pitt. Most of his experience as a kick returner came in his senior year when he fielded 23 kickoffs for a 21.4 yard average although he did return a kick 95 yards as a true freshman. LSH is often compared to another diminutive RB/KR Darren Sproles (5-6, 185) and they do share a similar running style with their speed and shiftiness.
What to expect early on: Make no mistake about it, Stephens-Howling will have to have an amazing training camp and preseason to break into the top three of the Cardinals running backs. If he makes a contribution as a rookie, it will come on kick off returns and even in that department he has some serious competition. LSH might end up spending a year on the practice squad but one advantage that he'll have over the rest of the running back group and everyone in the kick return competition (save Michael Ray Garvin) is that he possesses true game-changing speed. The Cardinals trio of Wells, Tim Hightower and Jason Wright have plenty of potential but none of them can approach the kind of speed and elusiveness that LSH brings to the table. Once he acclimates the speed and physicality of the NFL it's possible that he could assume the same kind of role that J.J. Arrington had in 2008 in which he'd be a threat out of the backfield on passing downs and capable of breaking a long run on occasion.
With the Cardinals youth and depth at the position it's hard to see where he fits into the long term plans at running back but his speed will be intriguing. We know that Whisenhunt like to draft with an eye towards the future and LSH might reap the rewards in a year or two. What role do you think he'll assume as a rookie and will he be on the roster? What do you see as his ceiling?