TEMPE, Ariz. -- Last season, one of Arizona coach Bruce Arians’ common refrains was that his rookie running back, Andre Ellington, wasn’t strong enough to carry a full load out of the backfield.
In the six months since the Cardinals’ season ended, either Ellington has put on enough weight to endure the rigorous wear and tear or Arians has come around. On Tuesday, Arians said he wants to get Ellington 25-30 touches a game in 2014 as the Cardinals’ primary back.
“It’s easy to hand it to him but it’s throwing it to him, that [is where] he’s really dynamic,” Arians said. “As the season progresses, it’ll depend on how they treat him as a receiver or a running back.”
Here’s a quick note: No running back averaged at least 25 touches a game last season. And only eight -- Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy (22.8), Chicago’s Matt Forte (22.6), Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell (22.3), Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (22), Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles (21.9), Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy (21.3), Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (21.1) and the Jets’ Chris Johnson (20.1) -- averaged 20 or more touches from carries and catches, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
That’s a Who’s Who of NFL running backs. It begs the first question: Is Ellington among that group?
Although he was in the running for offensive Rookie of the Year for about half of last season, Ellington hit the proverbial wall and his production steadied toward the end of the season with the exception of 71 rushing yards and 87 receiving yards at Tennessee in Week 15. If Arians wants Ellington to average 25-30 touches, his durability must endure.
McCoy led the NFL with 314 carries for a running back (for a league-high 1,607 rushing yards) and 366 touches. New Orleans’ Pierre Thomas led the league with 77 receptions for a back, but only two backs who averaged 20 or more touches were among the top 10 of running back receptions: Forte with 74 and Charles with 70.
Ellington, who has turned into one of the steals of the 2013 draft by falling to the Cardinals in the sixth round, is among one of the better young backs in the league but he’s yet to show that’s on the level of a McCoy, Peterson, Charles, Lynch, Johnson or even a Lacy, who was named offensive Rookie of the Year last season.
That’s not saying Ellington won’t develop into one of the premier running backs in the league, but he’s not at that level heading into 2014. He has the physical attributes to be a dominant runner and the speed to be a dangerous receiver, a role that Arians wants to expand. As a rookie, Ellington rushed for 652 yards on 118 carries and caught 39 passes for 371 yards for a combined 1,023 yards. He was one of 25 running backs to top the 1,000-yard mark in rushing and receiving yards last season.
The potential is there.
But there’s a second question about Ellington getting 25-30 touches per game: Is it even possible?
Arians made it clear that Ellington is the Cardinals’ No. 1 running back heading into next season, which will feature more two-back packages. But Arians wouldn’t establish who’ll be No. 2, saying it’s too early to establish a depth chart between Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer.
As the No. 1 back last season, Rashard Mendenhall averaged 15.6 touches a game. He had just 18 receptions because Ellington was the primary receiver out of the backfield. With the game plan now centered around Ellington, his touches are sure to increase but to the rate of 25-30 per game? Based on last year’s stats, the Cardinals had 1,037 total plays, an average of about 65 a game. That means Arians would like to Ellington to have the ball between 38 and 46 percent of those plays.
Of the running backs who averaged 20 or more carries and catches combined, Forte was responsible for the highest percentage of his team’s plays with 36.8. Lynch, Peterson and Bell all had the ball in 36.3 percent of their respective team’s plays, while McCoy had the ball 36.2 percent of the time.
Ellington said he’s capable of shouldering such a load.
“Of course,” Ellington said. “My goal is to just go out there and not take those big hits and kinda get down when I’m supposed to and not get hit at all. But it’s football, you’re going to get tackled. I try my best to avoid those.”
Arians wants to see the running game improve. It progressed during the final eight games of last season, but Arians wants to see even more of a jump when the season begins. With the Cardinals entering their second season in Arians’ offense, he said each running back will have play calls tailored to them.
Knowing he’ll be Arians’ primary weapon behind quarterback Carson Palmer has kept Ellington in his playbook more this offseason. He’s no longer the second option who had his carries monitored so he wouldn’t be overlooked.
It’s his job now, whether that’s 15 or 30 times a game.
“It’s just a lot of expectations [out] of me,” Ellington said. “I kinda thrive off that pressure and try to go out there and better myself as a player.”