TEMPE, Ariz -- On the bright side, there’s nowhere to go but up.
In 2012, the Arizona Cardinals’ offense was…well, offensive. Their 263.1 yards of total offense per-game offense ranked dead last in the NFL by a wide margin, and their 15.6-point scoring average only avoided the cellar thanks to the impotence of the Kansas City Chiefs .
Arizona’s quarterback and offensive line play (or lack thereof) were the primary culprits in the struggles, and in turn, those had a major impact on the ground. The Cardinals ranked last in the league in rushing, and their 75.3 yards-per-game was the worst that the NFL had seen since, appropriately enough, Arizona’s 73.6 mark in 2008. The running backs battled ineffectiveness and a major rash of injuries throughout the year, and the departed LaRod Stephens-Howling led the team with a meager 356 yards on the year.
To the credit of the new Cardinals’ management regime, they aggressively addressed these glaring needs.
Among the more prominent move, they traded for quarterback Carson Palmer and selected guard Jonathan Cooper with the seventh overall pick in last month's draft. They also brought in several running backs to help infuse new life to an offense that will need a consistent rushing threat to ease the burden on the rebuilding offensive line and their new quarterback.
Let’s take a look at the stable of backs that head coach Bruce Arians will look to carry the load in 2013.
Key Losses: LaRod Stephens-Howling (356 yards, four touchdowns in 2012), Beanie Wells (234 yards, five touchdowns)
The westward pipeline from Pittsburgh continued in full force this offseason when the Cardinals signed Mendenhall, the Steelers’ No. 1 pick in 2008.
Arizona is hoping that a change of scenery and a reunion with Arians, his former offensive coordinator, can reinvigorate a very talented player that has under[performed in recent years.
Mendenhall topped 1,000 yards in both 2009 and 2010, but his game, and his confidence, seemed to suffer after losing a key fumble in Super Bowl XLV. He has been plagued by fumbles since then, and he tore his ACL late in the 2011 season. He returned last year, but was ineffective and found himself third on the Steelers’ depth chart. Mendenhall was also suspended a game by the team for failing to show up to a game after being informed he would not be active.
However, when healthy and properly motivated, Mendenhall could be a very effective lead back for the Cardinals. He has a good size (5-foot-10, 225 pounds), the speed to break a long run, and is solid receiver out of the backfield. Mendenhall has good agility, although he often gets caught running laterally instead of hitting the hole, and sometimes over relies on his spin move. With his skills and familiarity in Arians’ offense, he should hold the lead job and approach 1,000 yards on the year.
Two years, two season-ending injuries.
After being the team’s second round pick in 2011, all Ryan Williams has to show for his pro career is five games and 164 yards. Coming off a shoulder injury that ended his season, Williams now looks to show off the talents that made him such a high pick.
Now healthier than he ever has been as a pro, Williams will have the benefit of a full offseason for the first time. Williams brings a smaller (207 pounds) and faster option to the backfield than Mendenhall. While his receiving and pass blocking are still works in progress, he will be looked at to be a speedy change of pace complement to Mendenhall.
If he stays healthy.
A fourth-year pro out of Kentucky, Smith did not log a carry last season, and caught just two passes for 21 yards in his 11 appearances. Smith did run for 102 yards and one touchdown in 2011.
He does bring value as a special teams contributor, and was resigned to a one-year deal. However, his road to playing time out of the backfield is unlikely, and with a cheap contract ($550,000) he could be in danger of being cut by the new regime.
When a rash of injuries striking the team’s backfield, Powell—the twice-released undrafted free agent out of Kansas State—was pressed into action as the team’s starter. He lost a key fumble at Minnesota, and was benched in favor of Stephens-Howling.
With a new staff in place and two new draft picks in the fold, it may be hard for the 205-pound Powell to see any meaningful carries, and training camp could very well see him competing to save his job.
In the third round of April’s draft, the Cardinals took Stanford’s all-time leading rusher in Stepfan Taylor. While some questioned the pick with Mendenhall and Williams already 1-2 on the depth chart, Taylor brings great value and a complete skillset to the roster.
At 214 pounds, Taylor is a grinder who will be use his good vision to be patient and find the right holes. He has the power to run over tacklers and move the pile, and while he will never be a burner, has just enough speed to keep defenses honest. Taylor is also a capable receiver, and perhaps most importantly, is willing and effective in pass protection.
With a good camp, Taylor should see carries in the rotation, and with Mendenhall on a one-year deal, could be in line to take over the starting job down the road.
If the selection of Taylor was a surprise, the sixth-round pick of Ellington was shocking. However, it was another example of the new Cardinals’ leadership finding great value in the later rounds of the draft.
The smallest back on the roster at 199 pounds, Ellington has good, not great, speed, and has some good agility and open-field moves to makes defenders pay. Despite his size, Ellington can run with power, and doesn’t shy away from tough inside runs, allowing his holes to develop before hitting them quickly.
Like Taylor, Ellington projects to be a true three-down back, thanks to his receiving and pass protection ability. Those qualities, especially the latter, should help him stick around for a number of years and be an effective complementary player.