There's David Johnson and then there's ...
The Arizona Cardinals know they possess one of the top overall players in the NFL regardless of position, but the franchise's reliance on Johnson in 2016 was taken to the extreme, as he carried the ball nearly 300 times and finished second on the team with 80 receptions.
Johnson touched the ball on almost 50 percent of the Cardinals' offensive plays this season, amassing over 2,000 yards and putting himself on the map as one of the NFL's most impressive offensive talents.
But behind Johnson, what do the Cardinals have depth-wise? In 2014, Clemson product Andre Ellington was the starting running back on a Cardinals team that earned its first playoff berth under Bruce Arians, as Ellington rushed for a team-high 660 yards and added almost 400 yards through the air as a receiver.
Since the emergence of Johnson and the team's decision to sign veteran free agent Chris Johnson, however, Ellington has struggled to carve out a role. Too small to be an every down back and not skilled enough to play a true scat-back role for the Cardinals, Ellington finished the 2016 season with just 34 rushing attempts and 12 receptions, an indication of his waning impact on an offense that needed more playmakers this year.
As Ellington faded, third-year back Kerwynn Williams emerged as a potential option in the Cardinals' backfield, earning playing time as a 'Wildcat' quarterback and spelling David Johnson in week 17 when he suffered a sprained MCL.
Though Williams carried the ball just 18 times this season, 12 of which came in the season finale against Los Angeles, he averaged 8.7 yards per rush this year and showcased impressive vision, patience and agility that could make him a candidate to earn more opportunities in 2017.
Ellington, Williams in 2016
After averaging 6.4 yards per carry in limited opportunities in 2015, Ellington saw his production dip significantly in 2016, a year in which Ellington could have taken advantage of an early-season injury to Chris Johnson.
With David Johnson in the fold, Arizona clearly didn't feel the need to use Ellington as a change of pace back, viewing Johnson as the far superior option through the entirety of the season. Even when Johnson was forced to split out wide and aid the team as a receiver late in the year, Ellington only carried the ball five times between weeks 12 and 16, signaling the Cardinals' unwillingness to expand Ellington's role.
As for Williams, as Ellington faded late in the year, he seized more opportunities, leading the Cardinals' successful 'Wildcat' set which produced three 20-plus yard rushes this year including a 49-yard touchdown against New Orleans.
Though Williams has never made the Cardinals' opening week roster, his play late in the year and the team's current running back depth should make his odds more favorable in 2017.
Ellington, Williams in 2017
After playing out the final season of his four-year rookie contract, it's unlikely Ellington return to the organization in 2017 unless he's willing to take a pay cut.
The 5-foot-9, 199-pound back made nearly $1.7 million in 2016, and with David Johnson set to be the team's featured back for the next two seasons, it's unlikely Arizona will want to spend north of $1 million for Johnson's backup. At this point, Ellington is comfortable in head coach Bruce Arians' offense, which makes his return to the team more likely than it would be for some players in his situation, however, it's more likely that Ellington tests the free agent market and attempts to find a better opportunity elsewhere in the league.
Williams, meanwhile, is under contract through the 2017 season and only costs the Cardinals $675,000 if he makes the active roster next season. Because he brings an added dimension to the offense as a 'Wildcat' quarterback and has demonstrated enough to merit more consideration as a true depth option, it wouldn't come as a surprise if Williams worked his way into the No. 2 role next season by focusing on other elements of his game such as pass blocking and receiving. Though Williams might be better suited to a No. 3 role, the Cardinals may prioritize other positions in free agency.