"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Player: Andre Ellington
Position: Running back
Experience: 4th season
Contract Status: 2016 season: $1,696,666
2015 season quick review: Ellington's 2015 season was marred by injuries as the former sixth round draft pick couldn't stay healthy. A season after starting 12 games, Ellington entered training camp with the hope of holding down the Cardinals' first-string running back spot. Instead, a training camp injury helped force the team's hand as it acquired veteran back Chris Johnson to pair with third round draft pick David Johnson. When Ellington did see the field last season, he struggled with a PCL injury and a toe problem that limited his role and allowed Arizona's other backs to seize opportunities and in-game repetitions. Aside from a 12-carry performance in week one, Ellington never rushed more than seven times in a game last year and suffered through his worst season as a professional.
Projected roster status: As we've noted, the Cardinals like to keep four running backs on the roster, and the team's third and fourth backs typically serve important roles on special teams. With the Johnson duo likely holding down the top two spots for running backs on the Cardinals' roster, Ellington must prove his durability in training camp in order to make the team. When healthy, Ellington has a nice skill set for a change of pace back and the versatility to catch passes out of the backfield, but he also costs the team more money than other backs like Stepfan Taylor and Kerwynn Williams so Ellington's position on the team's final 53-man roster is not a guarantee.
Projected depth chart status: In an ideal world for the Cardinals, Ellington remains healthy through fall camp and the team can take advantage of his speed in situations that call for a scatback type of player. Assuming Ellington makes the final roster, he would likely hold down the third spot on the team's depth chart, with a workload that varies on a weekly basis. Ellington has flashed potential as a difference-maker as a pass catcher, and his presence gives the Cardinals options to line up with two-back sets if they want to create mismatches. A player like Ellington isn't suited for a starting role, but he can be a valuable option further down the depth chart.
Position group analysis: The key to the Cardinals' running back depth this season is durability, as David Johnson is entering his first full season as a starter, Chris Johnson is coming off a broken tibia, and Ellington is attempting to bounce back from a number of injuries that limited his role last year. If all three players can share the workload and stay fresh, it's hard to imagine a current NFL backfield that features as much depth as the Cardinals' does. The team's top three options all have experience as starters, and each player brings a different set of skills to the offense which makes game planning more difficult for opposing defenses. With Chris Johnson and Ellington's contracts expiring after this season, this season will also serve as an evaluation period for the Cardinals to determine how they want to move forward with this unit.
Moving forward: Even if Ellington enjoys a return to form this season, we believe it's unlikely the Cardinals would bring him back on a new deal next season. As Chris Johnson learned a few seasons ago, even the best NFL running backs struggle to sign multi-year deals late in their careers, and a player like Ellington who has questions regarding his durability will have an even tougher time securing a significant contract. Ellington would be 28 at the start of the 2017 season, so unless he provides the Cardinals' with consistent production behind David Johnson in a scatback type of role, it's likely Arizona pursues a younger, cheaper option to round out the depth chart next season.
Key skill: Pass catching
Over the first two seasons of Ellington's career with the Cardinals, the Clemson product caught 85 passes and racked up more than 700 receiving yards. Ellington proved to be a great asset in the Cardinals' screen game, and his speed in the open field makes him a difficult target for defenders to bring down. While Ellington only caught 15 passes in 2015, the role he's projected to fulfill in 2016 will require Ellington to return to form as a receiver.
Part of Ellington's success in the Cardinals' screen game is the manner in which he sells a pass block. In the image below, we see Ellington set up in pass pro, without hinting he will soon turn open toward quarterback Carson Palmer.
Ellington does a nice job keeping his eyes down the field and sizing up potential pass rushers, which helps disguise the screen. Once Ellington does turn open, he find opens space, stretches out his hands and becomes an easy target for Palmer, which is sometimes difficult for shorter players like Ellington to do when they are surrounded by linemen.
Once Ellington has the ball in his hands, one of his skills as a back is putting his foot in the ground and turning a play into a sprint. Ellington has excellent open field speed, and instead of dancing around and waiting to shift past defenders, he plays with the mindset of gaining as many yards as possible right away.
Ellington runs for the open field, and because he keeps his pad level low and plays with a low center of gravity, Ellington is often able to bounce off of defenders and keep his legs churning forward. If Ellington hopes to contribute in a meaningful way this season, he will need to continue to focus on his hands and route running out of the backfield. Perhaps more importantly, if Ellington can improve his skills as a pass blocker, the Cardinals' offense will become less predictable because defenses won't be able to focus in on Ellington as a receiver.
Though it's sometimes difficult for second and third-string running backs to make a consistent impact, Ellington's skills as a receiver give him the opportunity to help the Cardinals this season.
Overall value: Even though Ellington is playing out the final year of his rookie deal, the contract is backloaded and the former sixth round draft pick is set to make close to $1.7 million this season which represents the highest total of any back on the Cardinals' roster. Ellington's contract makes him the 30th highest-paid running back in the NFL, and Chris Johnson ranks 33rd with a $1.5 million deal that could be worth up to $3 million with incentives. As the third back on the depth chart, it will be difficult for Ellington to live up to the salary Arizona committed to him because he likely won't have the opportunities and in-game reps. Unless injuries force Ellington into a starting role, it's unlikely he provides the team with more value than the other running backs on the Cardinals' roster.