There are two primary reasons Arizona Cardinals' running back David Johnson was able to set the NFL's record for most consecutive games with a 100 yards from scrimmage last season.
One, the second-year product out of Northern Iowa is a tremendous talent, playing in an offense ideally suited to his skill set. Two, the Cardinals elected to force feed Johnson the ball, giving Johnson nearly 375 touches as the team relied on him for nearly 50 percent of its offensive output.
While the Cardinals looked like they clearly needed more help for Johnson, Arizona head coach Bruce Arians said last week at the NFL owners' meetings that he's not concerned about the heavy workload for his top back.
"He's still too young to overuse," Arians said candidly.
Johnson will be 26 during the 2017 season, and even though he carried the ball nearly 300 times last season and caught 80 passes as a receiver, Arians said he wants Johnson to routinely touch the ball 30 times each game this year.
"I want to have 30 touches out of him, if possible, because there's going to be a lot of offense," Arians said. "When he has his hand on the ball, either as a wide receiver, coming out of the backfield, in the slot and running, that's a lot of potential offense for us."
The Cardinals are so confident in Johnson that Arizona hasn't worked the free agent market to add depth to the team's backfield, which Arians indicated is also a reflection of the way the organization feels about the team's depth options.
The backup Arians is perhaps most high on at this point in the offseason is fifth-year back Kerwynn Williams, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Utah State and has spent part of the last three seasons with the Cardinals. In 2016, Williams found a home in a role as Arizona's "Wildcat" quarterback, thriving in the late-season opportunities that came his way.
Though Williams has fewer than 100 regular season carries on his career stat line, Arians thinks the undersized back has been taken too lightly for too long.
"I'm fine right now, I think Kerwynn has proven, ever time he plays he gets 100 yards," Arians said. "Everybody says he's too small, and he just gets 100 yards every time he steps out there. That Wildcat stuff, not one of those plays was blocked right, he just made somebody miss and went and got 15-20 yards. That's his ability, so he's a real good little pass blocker, ain't afraid to stick it in there."
The other reserve Arians mentioned last Wednesday was 2016 practice squad running back Elijhaa Penny, who signed with Arizona as an undrafted free agent after the NFL Draft last April.
After a productive preseason which included a 100-yard rushing effort in the final contest, Penny was signed to Arizona's practice squad, and Arians suggested he could be a contender for a roster spot in 2017.
"I think Elijhaa Penny has got a lot of talent, he's learned what it's like to be an NFL player now, and slimmed him down, he's 235, might be a little too high for him," Arians said. "He's got real light feed and great hands, so we'll make him a little more shifty and then we'll just see what goes on from there."
Ironically, the Cardinals' confidence in their depth options behind Johnson comes at a point in time when Arizona knows it may not have either of its top backups returning as running backs next season.
Though veteran Andre Ellington re-signed with the Cardinals this offseason, he did so as a wide receiver, attempting to reinvent himself after a position change. Additionally, veteran Chris Johnson is mulling retirement and can still pursue another opportunity elsewhere, so Arizona is uncertain about his future.
"We could always put Andre (Ellington) back, Chris (Johnson) will make his decision, sometime soon and we'll see," Arians said.
Regardless of who the Cardinals end up with in their backfield next season, the players will be learning under a new position coach. Running backs' coach Stump Mitchell left the franchise this offseason and was hired as the New York Jets' running back coach, and the Cardinals elected to replace him with former quarterbacks' coach Freddie Kitchens.
"Stump is one of the best coaches I've ever been around, one of the great players I've ever coached," Arians said. "Had the fun of coaching him a few months before he ended his career with a knee injury and I wish him all the best."