There were no surprises when the Cardinals elected to keep four running backs on the team's 53-man roster this season, even after strong training camp performances from Kerwynn Williams and Elijhaa Penny.
From the outset of camp, it was going to be difficult for Williams or Penny to pass up Stepfan Taylor for the team's fourth roster spot dedicated to a running back, especially considering Taylor's value as a special teams asset.
Once the Cardinals opted to re-sign Chris Johnson this offseason, there were no doubts that Johnson, 2015 third round draft pick David Johnson and veteran Andre Ellington would serve as the top three backs for Arizona moving into the 2016 campaign. However, Taylor spent much of camp holding off Williams, and even had to withstand a late challenge from Penny, who flashed glimpses of potential and ended up signing with Arizona's practice squad.
With Johnson, Johnson, Ellington and Taylor in the fold once again this season, Arizona returns all four of its backs from last season. Still, their roles should be slightly different this year, and those differences are worth noting.
David Johnson: Johnson entered last season as the No. 2 back behind Chris Johnson on the team's depth chart, even though the Cardinals knew from the start of training camp the Northern Iowa product would eventually develop into the top workhorse in the backfield.
Johnson possesses a rare attribute only elite athletes have, which is the ability to make a sprint look like a leisurely glide. Johnson runs in such a fluid motion that balance is a defining characteristic of his game, and that poses challenges for opposing defenses. Aside from running with a low center of gravity that makes him harder to tackle, Johnson also doesn't waste steps, which became increasingly apparent in his route running during training camp.
Last year, the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder finished with 581 yards rushing, 457 yards receiving and 12 total touchdowns in just five starts. This year, as the bell cow back from the get-go, Johnson has the chance to surpass 1,500 total yards from scrimmage, and perhaps put himself in the conversation as one of the league's elite players at his position.
Chris Johnson: General manager Steve Keim was able to re-sign the ninth-year veteran to a one-year contract this offseason despite Johnson reportedly receiving offers with higher compensation and perhaps more expanded roles elsewhere. That's because Johnson is committed to the Cardinals' offensive vision, and probably sub-consciously appreciated his role as the featured back on one of the NFL's top teams last season.
It will be interesting to see how Johnson handles his role this season, considering David Johnson will serve as the top running back from the get-go. Johnson amassed 196 carries last season in just 11 games, and it's hard to imagine the Cardinals will give him more than 10-to-12 carries a contest as long as David Johnson remains healthy.
Mastering the transition to a new role will be critical for Johnson, especially if he still feels fresh and believes he can contribute more than the Cardinals will allow him to handle.
Andre Ellington: Unlike Johnson, Ellington is more familiar with the duties that correspond with playing as a backup and he's already found a home as the team's kick and punt returner. David Johnson played as a kick returner for much of last season, but with the Cardinals hoping to limit Johnson's injury risk on special teams plays, Ellington will take over for him and handle punt returning duties as well.
Ellington is just one full season removed from back-to-back 600-yard seasons, but questions about his durability and the emergence of the Johnsons have relegated Ellington to third-team duties. Regardless, Ellington appears to be content as a secondary contributor, and the Cardinals can be creative in how they deploy him.
The Clemson product's elusiveness in the open field makes him a great pass-catching threat out of the backfield, and he may even have the capabilities of playing a scat-back type of role for Arizona if the Cardinals are committed to using three backs in their rotation.
Stepfan Taylor: Taylor isn't a superior ball carrier to Williams, and may not even possess the same skills as Penny, but he made the roster because of his positional versatility and jack-of-all-trades abilities.
Taylor can help the Cardinals on third downs, whether those opportunities come in short yardage situations as a fullback or grind-it-through-the-pile ball carrier, or in long yardage situations as a pass protector. Additionally, Taylor plays on nearly every special teams unit for Arizona, serving a an upback on the punt team and a wedge setter for the kick return unit.
Taylor isn't going to turn too many heads with his athleticism, but his wide array of skills provide the Cardinals with plenty of value.