Raj Mehta/USA Today Sports

Making the cut: Arizona Cardinals running backs Elijhaa Penny, Stepfan Taylor, Kerwynn Williams

The competition for the fourth running back slot on the Cardinals roster should come down to three players, including two who have previous experience with the team.

"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: Elijhaa PennyStepfan TaylorKerwynn Williams

Position: Running back

Age: Penny: 22, Taylor: 24, Williams: 24

Experience: Penny: Rookie, Taylor: 4th season, Williams: 3rd season

Contract Status: Penny: 2016-$450,000, 2017-$540,000, 2018-$630,000, Taylor: 2016-$725,125, Williams: 2016-$600,000

2015 season quick review: Even with injuries keeping Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington out of the lineup at various points during the 2015 season, neither Taylor nor Williams was able to capitalize on limited playing time and carve out an expanded role last season. Though Taylor received 63 carries in 2014, he saw his workload reduced in 2015 as Williams actually handled more snaps at running back. Taylor saw the majority of his time as a special teams player, helping the Cardinals on various coverage units in all 16 games. Williams spent the majority of the season on the practice squad, but after Johnson was sidelined with a fractured tibia, Williams received the call-up to the 53-man roster and averaged a strong 5.3 yards per carry on 27 attempts. In the preseason, both Taylor and Williams will battle with Penny, who rushed for over 1,000 yards during his senior season at Idaho last year and signed a contract after a successful tryout with the Cardinals following the draft.

Projected roster status: If Ellington remains healthy during fall camp, it's likely the Cardinals would keep just one of the three players mentioned above. With David Johnson and Chris Johnson expected to handle the majority of the reps and Ellington capable of contributing in a reduced capacity on third downs and in the passing game, there won't be many carries to go around for the remaining players. The Cardinals have typically kept four running backs active on the roster, and with the addition of Brandon Williams and Harlan Miller through the draft, it's likely those two players will take on important special teams roles that could have gone to an additional running back if the Cardinals decided to draft just one cornerback instead of two. Even though the odds are unlikely, there is a scenario where two of the players could make the team, but it would probably take an Ellington injury or a late acquisition that forces the Cardinals to consider parting ways with Ellington because his salary cap hit is bigger than that of the other running backs.

Projected depth chart status: Assuming the top three backs we've covered to this point finish fall camp healthy, we believe it will be Taylor who emerges as the fourth running back despite Williams' improved production during the latter half of 2015. In this scenario, Taylor would serve as the fourth running back and likely receive about 20-30 carries over the course of the year, but continue to fulfill his role as a key special teams asset. If two of the three players (likely Taylor and Williams) end up making the roster, we could see a scenario in which Williams holds down the third spot on the depth chart because the Cardinals like him better as a true running back, with Taylor winding up as the fourth back but still playing on special teams. When teams like the Cardinals get down to the final spots on the roster, management knows it must find players who provide depth on special teams units because the players higher up on the depth chart like Johnson and Johnson are capable of handling a more significant load. 

Position group analysis: As we've mentioned in previous "Making the cut" pieces on Cardinals' running backs, the key for Arizona's backs is durability. With an up-and-comer in David Johnson and a proven veteran in Chris Johnson, the Cardinals' have a formidable top-end duo who compliment each other's skill sets nicely. At the bottom of the depth chart, players like Taylor and Williams may not have the durability to play 16 games and contribute as a consistent 4.0 yards per carry threat, but their health is integral to maintaining continuity at the position throughout the season.

Moving forward: Even though making the roster will be an uphill battle for Taylor, Williams and Penny, the 2016 competition could prove pivotal for at least one of the players as Arizona has two expiring contracts among its top three backs. Both Chris Johnson and Ellington have deals set to expire at the conclusion of this season, and it's hard to imagine the Cardinals would consider bringing both players back in 2017. Johnson will be 31 years old by the start of next season, and Ellington's struggles with durability have made him a somewhat expendable piece barring a return to form in 2016. All of this means the younger back who earns a spot on the 53-man roster could secure a future with the organization if the Cardinals are looking to keep players with schematic familiarity in the fold in 2017. 

Key Skill: Special teams contributions 

It's almost impossible to make a living as an NFL reserve, especially at a position like running back, without providing a roster with additional value beyond that of fulfilling traditional requirements. While players like Taylor and Williams have been expected to carry the ball five to 10 times a game at various points in their young careers, the most important service they provide a team with is special teams depth.

Reserve running backs are much like reserve defensive backs in that they must always play some of the most critical positions on special teams, because their speed gives them an advantage over linebackers and linemen. Even when Taylor and Williams were on the active roster last season, the Cardinals expected two running backs, not just one, to contribute on special teams and we see below how important these players are to the team's special teams schemes. 

In the image below, we see the Cardinals' kickoff coverage unit charging down the field against the St. Louis Rams. Taylor and Williams are highlighted on this play to show their alignment as players with inside lanes expected to cover the middle of the field. Instead of serving as outside contain players who may not end up making a difference on the play, Taylor and Williams' alignment suggests both players are expected to be wedge-busters who should be able to blow past blockers and make a tackle.

Kickoff coverage isn't the only area in which running backs contribute, as Taylor also played on the Cardinals' punt coverage unit throughout last season. In the image below, we see Taylor aligned as the "upback," which is among the most critical positions on the punt unit because upbacks are expected to hold off edge rushers and cut off their angles on block attempts. 

Serving as an upback on punts is essentially similar to pass blocking out of the backfield for running backs, except the footwork required of upbacks is more similar to that of offensive tackles. A good upback must be able to give ground at the line of scrimmage while maintaining leverage, because the upback must be in a position to deliver a blow to rushers with their hands and shoulder pads. If an upback loses leverage or allows an inside rushing lane to open up, rushers have a much better chance to block a punt.

If all parties remain healthy, the competition for the fourth running back spot may not come down to who is the best ball carrier, but instead, who provides the team with the most contributions on special teams units. The Cardinals have depended on Taylor to fulfill many special teams roles in the past, which is why we believe his skill set gives him the upper hand heading into fall camp.

Overall value: None of the three players highlighted in this piece have an annual salary worth upward of $800,000, so it's hard for any player to detract value from the Cardinals' roster because keeping Penny, Taylor and Williams doesn't hurt the organization's cap space in the same way keeping Ellington or Chris Johnson does. The one player who could provide the most potential value to the franchise is Penny, who did not cost the team a draft pick, yet is a relative unknown. Penny made an impression with the Cardinals because the team cut undrafted free agent Jared Baker to clear room for the Idaho product, so if Penny makes the team and ends up contributing on special teams and on the ground as a running back, the Cardinals stand to benefit because Penny comes to the organization at such a nominal cost. Nevertheless, with such insignificant sums committed to these three players, the Cardinals would likely be satisfied if one or two of them made the roster and played admirably on special teams. 


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