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Arizona Cardinals offseason: The situation at running back

We look at the position's production in 2014 and look ahead to 2015.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Next up in our offseason review of positions and looking ahead to the offseason are the running backs. This could perhaps be the biggest disappointment of the group, based on early expectations.

The roster:

Andre Ellington: signed through 2016
Jonathan Dwyer: will be unrestricted free agent
Stepfan Taylor: signed through 2016
Kerwynn Williams: signed through 2015
Marion Grice: signed through 2015
Zach Bauman: signed to 2015 future contract

Looking back at 2013

Heading into the season, big things were expected, especially by Andre Ellington. After fans clamored for more touches than his rookie campaign, Bruce Arians declared Ellington would be the focal point in the offense, getting up to 25-30 touches per game.

In 12 games, Ellington averaged just over 20 touches. He gained 660 yards, but it was only 3.3 yards per carry. He had 46 catches, too. He still ended up with over 1000 yards from scrimmage, but when everyone was expecting 1500-1800 and flashy plays, the production was disappointing.

Ellington struggled with injuries all year. Before the season started, he injured his foot and it was feared he would lose several weeks. He would decide to play through it and missed a lot of practice, which really hurt the offense. He wasn't dynamic in the passing game and didn't make great decisions in the running game.

Jonathan Dwyer was brought in to be the replacement for Rashard Mendenhall, who retired last offseason. After only two games, he had carried the ball 16 times. However, there was the domestic incident that led to his arrest and then being inactivated from the roster. He ended up on the non-football injury list, ending his season.

After Dwyer, Stepfan Taylor stepped got more play. He also struggled with YPC, also averaging 3.3.

The team signed Marion Grice and he was used a little bit, mostly on passing downs.

Robert Hughes was a guy Arians brought in and was supposed to be a good pass catcher and blocker, in addition to solid special teams play. The result? He was responsible for a blocked punt. He dropped three passes in 13 targets. He did have a couple of very nice catches, though. He was an okay pass blocker, but in the short yardage game, he was not good. He had six carries for six yards in those situations. His long was three yards, meaning he gained three yards on the other five carries.

The surprise of the season was Kerwynn Williams. Stashed on the practice squad after the season started, when Ellington was placed on injured reserve, he was promoted and no one outside of the team expected him to even play. In his debut, he rushed for 100 yards and then another 75 the following week, looking like a guy the team could rely on moving forward.


The key with this offseason is whether Ellington can get completely healthy and how much Arians will lean on him for the offense next season. I think we can probably mostly agree the way he was used over the last half of his rookie season was about right. He would get 35-40 snaps, 15 carries and three to five catches, and he would be dynamic.

The issue is they need another back to be the volume ball carrier, a guy like Mendenhall was.

Will the team decide to lean on Williams, who came out of nowhere?

Will Marion Grice develop into anything?

In terms of experience, they don't have much. Their most experienced backs are both Ellington and Taylor, who will enter their third season.

Looking ahead:

The Cardinals have almost no money invested in their running backs. Ellington and Taylor enter their third season of their rookie deals. Being fifth and sixth round selections, it's basically NFL pennies. Taylor will make $585,000. Ellington will make the same, as will Hughes. Williams and Grice will make $510,000. Bauman will be on a minimum deal. They literally almost cannot spend less money of the position.

Ellington has the potential to be great. He is special. Taylor is what he is. He will never be more than a depth guy -- an Alfonso Smith, with less speed. As a third or fourth back, that's fine. Grice has the skills to have a long career. He does everything well. We just don't know if he can be a full time guy.

Williams will be interesting to watch in 2015.

NFL Draft:

Will the Cardinals draft a running back? It is possible. If they do, look for a guy who can carry a load. Arians traditionally has one guy get 60-75 percent of the carries. The general consensus, though, seems to be the team wouldn't draft a guy early, so when mock drafts show Melvin Gordon to the Cardinals in the first round, there is reason to question it.

Free agency:

What should be expected even more is to see the team pick someone up in free agency -- someone with some experience. The market could be good. Unless their teams re-sign them before free agency starts, Frank Gore, DeMarco Murray, Justin Forsett, Mark Ingram, Ryan Mathews, Knowshon Moreno will be among those available. That should mean they shouldn't cost as much as they could because of the supply in free agency at the position.

After these more notable players, you have young talent -- Chris Polk (potentially dynamic returner), Dan Herron or even Daniel Thomas.

Bottom line:

I expect the team to target a back with experience -- someone to compete for a role with Kerwynn Williams. I don't expect a running back being drafted, though it wouldn't surprise me. Because of the relative youth at the position, I don't see a ton of changes. My best prediction would be Ellington, Williams, a free agent back and then Grice and Taylor battling it out for the final spot.