Cards build depth in backfield

July, 1, 2014
Jul 1
10:00
AM ET
In order for Bruce Arians' offense to work, there has to be a quality running game that keeps defenses honest.

It doesn’t have to be spectacular or otherworldly -- just good enough to make Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer comfortable calling a running play. Arizona's running attack last season was adequate, averaging 96.3 yards per game.

This season, it's poised to make a marked improvement.

[+] EnlargeAndre Ellington
Jennifer Stewart/USA TODAY SportsAndre Ellington should get the bulk of the carries, but the Cardinals have some talented and intriguing depth at running back.
The retirement of last year's starting running back, Rashard Mendenhall, was taken in stride. Andre Ellington was promoted to starter while Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer, who was signed in the offseason, were given the chance to battle for the second and third running back spots. The signing of Robert Hughes has been hailed internally, as it gives the Cardinals a steady back at the fourth spot who can play running back, fullback and tight end, according to Arians.

"It's a good battle going on," Arians said. "There's a ton of talent with Stef and Jonathan. Robert Hughes is an outstanding player."

Arians made headlines early in the offseason when he said he'd like to give Ellington 25 to 30 carries per game. It's an unlikely scenario but the comment showed Arians' confidence in the up-and-comer who's entering his second season.

Last season, Ellington led the league with 5.53 yards per carry. He had 652 yards and three touchdowns on 118 carries as Mendenhall's backup. It didn't take long this offseason for Arians to see a difference in Ellington.

"He's always had a lot of confidence, that's what I like about him," Arians said. "He's got that great smile and he can run real fast -- that's a good combination. He's got a little more swagger. He's had success in the National Football League."

This much we know about this year's running attack: It needs work, Arians has said, but it will feature more two-back sets. That means there will be more of a rotation, creating more opportunities for the No. 3 and 4 backs.

Arians coached Dwyer in Pittsburgh, where Dwyer was Mendenhall’s backup. Last season, with Mendenhall in Arizona and Le'Veon Bell the starter, Dwyer had 197 yards on 49 carries, but he was better during offseason practice than Arians remembered.

"He's in better shape and he's running routes and catching the ball better than I remember," Arians said. "I know he'll pound you and can really run the football. I know he can pass block. But he caught the ball extremely well. He made some catches in the red zone for us. That was a surprise."

A bigger surprise, however, has been Hughes.

Hughes played for Indianapolis in 2012, when Arians was the interim coach, before hurting his knee in December of that year. Less than a week after getting released by the Colts on Dec. 17, 2013, he was signed to the Cardinals practice squad and later signed to a futures contract. It's apparent that Arians is fond of Hughes because of his toughness, bruiser mentality and skill set.

Hughes, who played at Notre Dame, also drew praise from Palmer.

"If you were going to take two or three guys that have the best hands on the team, he makes unbelievable catches," Palmer said. "Very strong. He's one of those guys that you expect to not see much of until you put pads on but I've been very pleasantly surprised.

"I think once you put pads on, he's 240 pounds and built like a bulldog and I think he's going to run through people and run over people. But I've been very shocked for a guy with his build and his power, how fluid he is running routes and how well he does adjusting to balls and catching balls and in the pass game he's been really good."

Josh Weinfuss

ESPN Arizona Cardinals reporter

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