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Cardinals Running Back Outlook: Will Chase Edmonds be the starter in 2021?

Kenyan Drake will be one of the top running backs available in free agency

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Before the season started, the Arizona Cardinals believed they had one of the best backfields in the NFL.

Kenyan Drake was coming off a stellar 2019 season, averaging 5.2 yards on 123 carries. He had 814 scrimmage yards through eight games with the Cardinals. He was given a transition tag (worth $8.48M) to return for the 2020 season after the team traded away David Johnson to the Houston Texans.

Unfortunately he was unable to replicate the success he had the year before. Despite setting a new career high with 955 rushing yards in 2020, his yards per carry average dropped to four. He was phased out of the receiving game with only 25 receptions through 15 games. The explosiveness he had in 2019 was pretty much nonexistent in 2020.

With Kenyan Drake scheduled to be a free agent, will the Cardinals bring him back?

There is a possibility that he will be re-signed but it seems unlikely. His east and west running style to go along with his lack of explosiveness in 2020 could mean the end of his journey in Arizona. Even in a normal salary cap year, this team would not pay him again so handsomely. If he returns, it will be on a short inexpensive deal.

Now the attention shifts to Chase Edmonds.

Arizona Cardinals v New York Jets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Edmonds (5-9 210lbs) was arguably the best running back on the team last season. He set career highs across the board in carries (97), rushing yards (448), catches (53), and receiving yards (402). He might just be the best change-of-pace running back in the league.

Will Edmonds be the No. 1 running back next season?

Ideally, the Cardinals want a bigger running back to handle the workhorse duties.

There were two games over the last two seasons when Edmonds received over 20 carries but got mixed results.

He ran all over the Giants in 2019 with 27 carries, 126 rushing yards, and three touchdowns. Last season against the Dolphins, he had 70 rushing yards on 25 carries. To be fair, the Dolphins own one of the best defenses in the NFL.

However, the statistics show that Edmonds is most effective in the change-of-pace role. In 12 of the 16 games he played in in 2020, he averaged at least four yards per carry. I believe this is the role that the Cardinals want to keep him in moving forward. When the team needs a spark, Edmonds delivers.

The other running backs under contract are Jonathan Ward (6-0 202lbs) and 2020 seventh-round pick Eno Benjamin (5-9 207lbs). Ward was an undrafted free agent out of Central Michigan and mainly played on special teams. He had only one catch but it was a touchdown. Benjamin was inactive all year. Both are intriguing players with upside. They will be battling for a roster spot in 2021.

Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Khalfani Muhammad (5-7 174lbs) signed with the team on a futures contract while DJ Foster is also scheduled to be a free agent.

The Cardinals could draft one of the top three running backs in Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Alabama’s Najee Harris, or North Carolina’s Javonte Williams with one of their top three picks.

In free agency if they choose to move on from Drake, Chiefs’ Le’Veon Bell (6-1 225lbs), Rams’ Malcolm Brown (5-11 222lbs), and Packers’ Jamaal Williams (6-0 213lbs) would be some of the better inexpensive options. They can convert those short yardage situations. All are big running backs with power that can handle a sizeable workload.

In any case, the Cardinals will add a running back either through free agency or the NFL Draft. I highly doubt this team will roll with only Edmonds and three inexperienced running backs. I do not expect Steve Keim to break the bank on a running back considering they have greater needs at wide receiver and cornerback.