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The Cardinals’ Huge Decision at RB

Divisional Round - Los Angeles Rams v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

“You should never ever ever draft a running back in the first or second round.”

There are exceptions, right?

“You can get a good one later on in the draft.”

Yes, if a really good one happens to fall to you in a later round, like Aaron Jones (pictured above), the UTEP RB whom the Packers hopped in the 5th round 4 years ago..

Three years ago, Cardinals’ GM Steve Keim thought so highly of the RB position that he gave David Johnson a 3 year $39M deal despite the fact that Johnson had only turned in one stellar season and had just come off a season in which he played in only a half a game..

The Cardinals thought they had hit the jackpot with their 2015 3rd Round pick. Johnson was absolutely sensational in 2016.

Kliff Kingsbury, Sean Kugler and the current Cardinals’ coaches clearly view the RB1 position as one of their top priorities, so much so that last season they were willing to pay Kenyan Drake $8.7M on a t-tag.

Word is that the Cardinals, come free agency, are intending to make a strong push to acquire Green Bay RB Aaron Jones. Signing Jones would be taking Drake’s $8.7M and raising it another $3.5-4M ($12.2-$12.7M a year). Again, if the Cardinals intend to be a major suitor for Aaron Jones, it shows how important the position is in K2’s offense. The coaches don’t want an average or “serviceable” player at RB1. They want a stud.

For those who would immediately take WRs DeVonte Smith or Jaylen Waddle at #16 (some are even hoping that the Cards trade up to get Waddle), I would bet you $12.7M that if you asked Nick Saban and Steve Sarkisian which of their Alabama playmakers is the most dynamic and which one whom they would take first in the NFL draftt, they would say Najee Harris, without a nano-second’s hesitation.

While fans and pundits seem to be stuck on the myth that you can just draft a RB later on and that it is not worth it to draft RBs in Round 1 or 2, that is not what NFL coaches think at all.

Over the past few years we have seen Bill Belichick, Ron Rivera, Pete Carroll, Jon Gruden and Andy Reid take RBs in Round 1. What do all of those NFL head coaches have in common? They have won conference championships and coached in Super Bowls. Four of the five have won Super Bowls.

The reality is that today’s all-purpose 3 down RBs are as in vogue today with the NFL coaches as the 3 down, quick, high octane all-purpose ILBers.

Just as dual threat all-purpose QBs are in vogue.

One could argue that a strong alternative to using 1st round draft picks on RBs is to do what Kyle Shanahan did with the Falcons and is currently doing with the 49ers —- by going with a “stable” of fast, quick-to-the hole, crafty receiving RBs.

Bill Belichick also ascribes to the RB “stable” philosophy and that was never more apparent when the Patriots stormed back from a 28-3 second half deficit to beat the Falcons (with Kyle Shanahan as OC), 34-28 in OT. One could call this game ‘The RB Stable Bowl.”

For the Patriots, LeGarrette Blount (CFA), James White (4th rounder) and Dion Lewis (5th rounder) combined for 199 total yards from scrimmage. While the Falcons’ Devonta Freeman (4th rounder) and Tevin Coleman (3rd rounder) combined for 156 yards.

Freeman totaled 121 yards rushing and receiving while James White caught 14 passes for 110 yard and had 29 yards rushing, which included his game-tying 1 yard TD run (plus Danny Amendola’s 2 point conversion) with 57 second left in regulation, plus the game-winning TD on a 2 yard run with 3:28 remaining in OT.

Fast forward to this year’s Super Bowl and the starting RBs for both the Bucs and the Chiefs were 1st round picks: Leonard Fournette (Jaguar’s 1st Round pick in 2017) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (Chiefs’ 1st Round pick in 2020).

During the 2020 season, in 13 games, Clyde Edwards-Helaire rushed for 803 yards (4.4 ave.) and 4 TDs. He added 297 receiving yards (8.2 ave.) and 1 TD receiving, for a total of 1,100 yards from scrimmage, before being kicked out of action in Week 15 by the Saints when he suffered a hip in jury plus a high ankle sprain.

Leonard Fournette emerged as the Bucs’ go-to, bell cow RB in the playoffs, rushing for 300 yards (4.5 ave.) and 3 TD and adding 148 yards (8.2)and 1 TD receiving for a total of 448 yards in 4 playoff wins.

While there is little question about the positive contributions that Fournette and Edwards-Helaire made toward the success of the Bucs and Chiefs respectively, one can make the argument that Aaron Jones of Green Bay is a better and more productive player. Jones was the Packers’ 5th round pick out of UTEP in 2017.

2020 numbers for Aaron Jones: 1,104 yards (5.5 ave. rushing, 9 TDs, 355 yards receiving (7.6 ave.), 2 TDs.

As for Kenyan Drake (Dolphins’ 3rd round pick in 2016), his 2020 numbers: 955 yards rushing (4.0 ave.), 10 TDs, plus 137 yards receiving (5.5 ave.), 0 TDs.

PFF has ranked Kenyan Drake as the #3 best UFA RB behind Aaron Jones and Chris Carson, which Drake shared yesterday on Twitter:

PFF Projects these contracts:

Aaron Jones: 4/$52M/$13M ave./$30M guaranteed

Chris Carson: 3/$30M/$10M ave./$15M guaranteed

Kenyan Drake: 3/$20M/$6.7M ave./$10M guaranteed

Note: This off-season, it would be very surprising to see Jones, Carson and Drake land these kind of contracts. A guess (the per year figure) would be Jones at $11M, Carson at $4M and Drake at $3M.

One more thing about Aaron Jones and his link to the Cardinals is that Sean Kugler was his college coach at UTEP. One would imagine too that Kliff Kingsbury would have spoken with Jones, the El Paso native, during his recruitment process at Texas Tech.

Per Pro Football Network: Top UFA RBs 2021

1) Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

2) Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals

3) Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

4) Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos

5) Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

6) Le’Veon Bell, Kansas City Chiefs

7) Todd Gurley, Atlanta Falcons

8) James White, New England Patriots

9) Tevin Coleman, San Francisco 49ers

10) Mike Davis, Carolina Panthers

The question of the Cardinals is what should they do if they are unable to sign RB Aaron Jones?

Do any other of the UFA RBs on this list appeal to you and at what salary?

The top RB in the 2021 NFL Draft per Mel Kiper:

1. Najee Harris, Alabama

2. Travis Etienne, Clemson

3. Javonte Williams, North Carolina

4. Trey Sermon, Ohio State

5. Demetric Felton, UCLA

6. Michael Carter, North Carolina

7. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

8. Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State

9. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

10. Javian Hawkins, Louisville

It is conceivable that at #16 both Najee Harris and Travis Etienne will be available. If the Cardinals have not addressed the RB in free agency that will be an indication that they intend to do so in the draft.

The #16 pick in 2020, CB A.J. Terrell, was signed to a 4 year $14.3M contract (an average of $3.6M a year).

Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently wrote:.

If Alabama’s Najee Harris falls to the Steelers at No. 24 in the NFL draft, they should use approximately one second of their 10-minute allotment to make the pick.

Harris is everything the Steelers and coach Mike Tomlin value in a back. He is tough, explosive, elusive, dependable, sure-handed (one lost fumble in the past two years), and versatile. He protects the quarterback. He catches the ball. He leaps defenders in a single bound.

He’s a ready-made star, is what he is. The perfect player to take some pressure off the quarterback.

“I call him Derrick Henry 2.0,” USC great Reggie Bush said on Fox College Football. “If you think about Derrick Henry, he’s one of the most feared running backs in the NFL because of his size and the ferociousness with how he attacks the hole and attacks linebackers. Najee Harris can do all those things — and he can jump over people and also has routes, has hands. He can do a lot of different things.”

Todd McShay has Harris at #20 on his board:

20. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama*

HT: 6-2 | WT: 232

Grade: 90 | Previous rank: 27

Harris has great size and good speed, and he has shown excellent ball security. He is strong on contact and slippery between the tackles. I was previously a bit concerned he danced too much, looking for the home run, but Harris was decisive in his final season at Alabama. His 26 rushing touchdowns ranked No. 1 in the country this season, and his 1,466 rushing yards were No. 3. He looks improved in pass protection too and remains underrated as a pass-catcher.

Brentley Weissman of the Draft Network gives the top RB in 2021 edge to Travis Etienne:

Etienne has good, not great size for the position—listed at 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds—but he runs extremely strong for a back that size and has an Alvin Kamara-esque ability to bounce off tackles. He has outstanding burst and acceleration and has the explosiveness to beat almost any angle. Etienne shows good patience to let things develop and vision to see cutback lanes. He proved in 2020 that he is more than capable as a receiver out of the backfield and can actually be quite the weapon in that regard due to his speed, quickness, and lateral agility in the open field.

As much as I like Harris, I just like Etienne more. Harris is phenomenal, and I appreciate how solid of a player he is, but I want a little more than solid. Where Harris can consistently churn out 4-5 yards per carry, Etienne has the burst and speed to pop for 60 in a flash. In today’s NFL where everyone is big and everyone is fast, I want my running back to be able to defeat angles with speed and be able to explode through a gap rather than rely on power to plow over defenders.

Todd McShay has Travis Etienne at #22 on his board:

22. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson*

HT: 5-10 | WT: 212

Grade: 90 | Previous rank: 19

Etienne has above-average speed with an explosive second gear when he hits daylight. He is a real home run hitter in space, breaking off 19 plays for 20-plus yards this season. I like his contact balance too. Etienne has 70 career rushing touchdowns, including 14 in 2020 (tied for seventh in the country). He bested 1,600 rushing yards for the second straight season in 2019, before gaining 914 through 12 games this year. Etienne also had 588 receiving yards this season, better than the totals in his other three seasons combined, showing massive improvement on that front.

Some argue that it would be better for the Cardinals to wait until pick #49 to take Javonte Williams of North Carolina. The question is, however, when the Cardinals could have two super birds in hand at #16 (and maybe even be able to take Harris or Etienne in a trade down into the 20s that could garner an added third or fourth rounder), what if, come pick #49, Javonte Williams is off the board? Curiously, Todd McShay has Javonte Williams ranked #48 on his board. One could say, trade up, but with only three other picks remaining in the draft, is this a good year to trade up?

I think the Cardinals are going to go all-in on Aaron Jones, especially now that Sean Kugler is the running game coordinator.

But, it’s hard to ignore the two tremendously talented and productive 1st round RB prospects who may be just as good or better than Jones and close to $9-10M a year less expensive.

What do you want to see the Cardinals do at RB?