After posting 2,000 yards from scrimmage during the 2016 season, running back David Johnson proved the Cardinals could depend on him to carry the load in Arizona's backfield for the foreseeable future.
Johnson's breakout performance took the NFL by storm, as he set the league record for most consecutive games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage in a row with 15.
The Northern Iowa product solidified himself as one of the premier backs in the NFL last season, but in the process, Johnson made it difficult for the Cardinals to attract free agents looking for meaningful No. 2 roles in an offense in 2017.
Even when veteran Chris Johnson was healthy last season and even when former Cardinals' starter Andre Ellington was seemingly ready to aid the team's cause in the backfield, the Cardinals stuck with David Johnson, feeding him the ball nearly 300 times on the ground and 80 times through the air in 2016.
What free agent wants to touch the ball fewer than five times per game? Even though Arizona knows it needs a complementary back to help spell Johnson next season, the Cardinals' chances of finding a willing option aren't great.
Earlier last week, though, Arizona did manage to re-sign Ellington to a one-year contract, giving the team a player with starting experience and knowledge of the Cardinals' offense and scheme another opportunity to help the franchise.
On the surface, it appeared as though Arizona had found its primary backup, and could move on to address other needs in free agency. However, Kent Somers of The Arizona Republic reported earlier this week that Ellington's return to the Cardinals will allow him to focus primarily on playing wide receiver, even though he's previously served as a running back.
Arizona has benefitted from Ellington's versatility and head coach Bruce Arians has spoken highly of his pass-catching abilities, but if Ellington is truly intent on focusing on learning a new position, what does the team's running back depth look like?
Furthermore, can Arizona depend on Ellington as a valuable option at wide receiver, especially given the team's need to begin restructuring its depth for the post-Larry Fitzgerald era which could begin as early as 2018?
The decision to bring Ellington back on a one-year deal has the potential to become a low-risk, high-reward signing for the Cardinals, but it's not one that's likely to address team needs or turn Ellington into a vital piece of the team's offense next season. Instead, the move allows the Cardinals to experiment with a player the franchise values in the hopes that Ellington can turn into a unique, situational offensive weapon.
Ellington's return shouldn't stir up speculation that the Cardinals hope he'll become an every down player, because to this point in his career, Ellington really hasn't proven he has the type of skill set that can be relied upon in that sort of way. What the Cardinals should hope for is that Ellington can give the team somewhere between five-to-15 quality plays a game on the offensive side, while helping the team in some way, shape or form on special teams.
If Ellington makes the roster next season --and yes, he should have to battle for a spot given his position change-- he'll probably be listed on the depth chart as one of four running backs or five wide receivers. It would come as a major surprise if the Cardinals kept a total of 10 skill position players between those two positions, and it's unlikely Ellington will offer the sort of value that would compel the franchise to do that.
Should Ellington make the team as one of four backs, Arizona must find a way to ensure it has a capable second running back on the depth chart in the event that Johnson suffers an injury, because with Ellington's focus shifting, it's highly unlikely he'll be prepared to step in and provide the team with enough value to match what a true No. 2 running back would bring to the table.