Arizona Cardinals pre-NFL Draft running back outlook

The Arizona Cardinals return three playmakers in the backfield including featured back David Johnson.

Current Roster Number: 5 (David Johnson, Chris Johnson, Andre Ellington, Kerwynn Williams, Stepfan Taylor)

Ideal Roster Number: 4

Returning Starters: 1/1 (David Johnson)

Draft Need: Low Priority

Roster Composition: The Cardinals enter the 2016 NFL Draft in excellent shape in the backfield as the team returns starting running back David Johnson, who emerged as the team's workhorse down the stretch last season.

Though Johnson did not begin the year as a starter, the rookie out of Northern Iowa finished the year on a fantastic run that included a breakout performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in week 15. In that game, Johnson carried the ball 29 times for 187 yards and cemented his status as the featured back heading into the playoffs. 

As a third round draft pick in 2015, Johnson represents great value for the Cardinals as he's signed through the 2018 season and isn't scheduled to make upward of $1 million in any of the remaining years on his rookie contract. 

One of the major factors in having sustained success in the running game in the NFL is having a "change-of-pace" back, and the Cardinals are fortunate to enter this season with two. 

Veteran Chris Johnson is back with the Cardinals on a one-year contract after posting impressive numbers prior to a season-ending injury. The elder Johnson amassed 814 rushing yards before he went down with a fractured tibia, which represented the fourth-best total of any running back up through that point in the season. 

Pairing David Johnson with Chris Johnson gives the Cardinals two backs with contrasting styles and different speeds, and it will allow the Arizona coaching staff to get creative with how it deploys each back. 

To make matters more difficult for opposing defenses, Arizona also plans on keeping fourth-year back Andre Ellington in the mix. Ellington flashed potential as a starter in 2014, but suffered an injury during training camp last fall and fell behind the Johnson duo on the depth chart. 

Ellington has a reputation as a strong pass-catcher, hauling in 39 receptions his rookie season and 46 catches in 2014. That type of versatility brings added value to the roster, especially considering Chris Johnson caught just 36 passes last year and David Johnson will almost assuredly see more opportunities in the run game this season. 

With three backs who have demonstrated the ability to produce when called upon, the Cardinals are in good shape heading into the draft. The team also has Kerwynn Williams and Stepfan Taylor under contract, which gives the Cardinals a bit of additional depth should one of its top three backs suffer an injury. 

Most NFL teams elect to keep four running backs active on game days, so if the Cardinals follow suit this season, the battle between Williams and Taylor for the fourth slot on the active roster could be an interesting one to follow come training camp. 

Draft Outlook

The Cardinals set their backfield up for long-term success with the selection of David Johnson in the third round last year. Johnson was a diamond in the rough for Arizona, especially considering he played college ball at the FCS level at Northern Iowa. 

Johnson was the seventh back selected, and though it took him awhile to get going last season, he drew praise from general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians who believe Johnson can be an every down back in the NFL. 

With Johnson under contract until 2016 and the rest of the unit on stable footing, it appears the Cardinals are unlikely to draft a running back this weekend. However, with Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington's contracts set to expire at the end of 2016, there's a slim possibility the Cardinals could look to add a player in the later rounds of the draft.

A potential selection probably wouldn't take place until day three and may only be possible if Keim completes a draft day trade to accumulate an additional selection or two, but the Cardinals are obviously hoping to avoid a situation in which they need to completely replenish their depth chart behind David Johnson next season. 

Still, we expect the Cardinals to address other needs and wait until next offseason to make decisions regarding the future of this position group. 


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