Thanks to the rather surprising retirement of Rashard Mendenhall, Ellington now enters his second NFL season as the Cardinals’ lead back, surrounded by expectations for a breakout sophomore season.
However, if that breakout’s going to come to pass, how the Cardinals use the former Clemson star will matter more than how much they use him.
There’s no disputing that the Cardinals got good bang for their buck from Ellington as a rookie.
Playing a complementary role to Mendenhall last year, Ellington averaged 5.5 yards per tote. Only three running backs (LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles, Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs and Joique Bell of the Detroit Lions) who had 30 or more receptions averaged more yards per catch than Ellington.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked Ellington eighth among NFL running backs as a rookie, ahead of the likes of Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings and Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears. Ellington was fifth in the league in PFF’s Elusive Rating.
Not a bad first-year return at all for a sixth-round pick.
It gets better. Ellington has a well-deserved reputation as a very dangerous player in the open field, but the 5’9″, 199-pounder also isn’t afraid of getting dirty, as Kevin Patra of NFL.com recently pointed out.
Big plays were Ellington’s forte thanks to an ability to shed tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, Ellington earned a league-qualifying high of 47.9 percent of his yards on 15-plus yard runs due to his elusiveness and ability to create yards after contact.
In fact, only Donald Brown (then of the Indianapolis Colts) averaged more yardage after contact per attempt in 2013 than Ellington.
Of the 47 running backs with over 100 carries ranked by Football Outsiders last year, Ellington ranked fourth in DVOA, or “Defense-adjusted Value Over Average,” an advanced metric that measures “value, per play, over an average running back in the same game situations.”
Given all those saucy statistics, the best plan of action in 2014 would appear to be simple.
Get Andre Ellington the ball. A lot.
Back in May, head coach Bruce Arians said that was the plan:
Of course, one would also hope that Arians was exaggerating a bit. Because while 400+ touches in 2014 would just about guarantee a big statistical season (assuming 16 games), it would also just about guarantee that Ellington’s legs would fall off.
Peterson, the workhorse of all workhorses, has never touched the ball 400 times in a season.
Slow your roll, Bruce.
Darren Urban of the Cardinals website, on the other hand, predicts that Ellington receive “20-22 touches a game.”
That would put Ellington in the neighborhood of 325 touches for the season. It’s a heavy workload for a small(ish) back who had some durability issues in college. With that said, Chris Johnson of the New York Jets and Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs are similarly built, and they’ve held up fine under featured-back workloads.
It’s also not just a matter of the quantity of Ellington’s touches. The quality is important as well.
It’s all about space. The final frontier.
Just because Ellington thrived in picking up yardage after contact last year doesn’t mean you want him banging into defensive tackles all afternoon long. Sweeps. Tosses. Screen Passes. Get Ellington the rock in places where you can both minimize the pounding he takes and maximize his chances of doing things like this.
That’s Darelle Revis with the two broken ankles at the 3:13 mark, by the way.
Granted, Ellington’s impending explosion is no sure thing. He’s going to have to show he’s capable of holding up under an increased workload. Also, after being used very sparingly as a pass-blocker as a rookie, Ellington is going to have to demonstrate some aptitude at blitz pickup.
Carson Palmer is many things as a quarterback. Mobile is most assuredly not one of them.
However, if Ellington can accomplish those goals while maintaining a per-touch average anywhere near last year’s 6.5 yards a pop?
Then watch out, because at that point those comparisons to Johnson and Charles aren’t going to be far off at all.
Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter NFL news on BleacherReport.com