Training Camp Battle Preview: Running Back

Tim Hightower is getting rave reviews, while Steve Baylark craves a chance to break onto the scene. Marcel Shipp looks to fortify his role, and J.J. Arrington needs to rebound from a rocky off-season. All know they could be the long-term replacement for Edgerrin James. Which competitor will be left standing in this game of musical chairs? Read on as gets the music gets started.

Tim Hightower (6'0, 226) enters his rookie season as a sleeper with unlimited potential. Drafted in the fifth round out of Richmond, he was a first team All Colonial Athletic Association selection his senior year. During his college career he showed an exceptional knack for maintaining possession. Hightower never fumbled while rushing for 3,712 yards and 34 touchdowns on 704 carries.

Hightower's north-to-south running style has reminded some scouts of Marion Barber, as well as a raw version of Marcus Allen. Hightower's unique blend of skills provides him with the arsenal necessary to develop into the Cardinals best runner. Although he is not extraordinarily fast (4.59 on his 40-yard dash), Hightower's pass catching abilities and power back mentality makes him a perfect fit for Coach Ken Whisenhunt's offensive system. These recent comments from Whisenhunt reflect his feelings about Hightower's promise:

"I see a lot of characteristics I like in a young player, the way he works on the field, the way he studies. Even the extra work he does after practice. What I really like is the way he's latched onto a couple of good veteran players and he's trying to absorb as much information from them as he can. When you see a young guy doing that, it's a good sign they have a chance to be successful."

J.J. Arrington
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty

If Hightower can build on the positive impression he has made thus far in mini-camp, he may be ready to take over as the feature back sooner than expected.

Selected by the Cardinals in the second-round of the 2005 draft, J.J. Arrington entered the league with high expectations. While his size (5'8, 218) raised uncertainty about his future in the NFL, his speed (4.45 on his 40-yeard dash) did not. Arrington has spent the first three seasons proving the critics right, but entering his fourth season, the time to step up is now.

Trouble seemed to follow Arrington this past off-season. His arrest after a fight at a North Carolina nightclub and subsequent poor showing at mini-camp has him hanging in the balance. A possible explanation for Arrington's struggles is the "David Carr Effect".

Much like Carr, Arrington's first season was spent trying to operate behind a porous offensive line. Without a reliable running lane, he developed the habit of making moves before getting close to the line of scrimmage, leading to a poor career rushing average of 3.1 yards per attempt.

Whisenhunt's "no nonsense" attitude does not bode well for athletes who find their way into off-season debauchery. The question will come down to whether the Cardinals think Arrington still has potential or if they should just cut their losses and move in another direction. In order for Arrington to stay on the Cardinals' roster he needs to prove that he can be lightning to complement Edgerrin James' thunder.

The dark horse of this battle is definitely the unproven veteran Steve Baylark (6'0 225). After enjoying an I-AA college career at U-Mass that exemplified success, he did not find an immediate home in the NFL until landing on the Cardinals' practice squad last season.

Steve Baylark

Baylark became only the third player in I-AA history to rush for 1,000 yards or more in four consecutive seasons. Cardinal staff members have been impressed with the quality of play shown by Baylark in mini-camps. His best shot at making the team is to demonstrate a variety of skills. If Baylark can become a valuable contributor on special teams, the Cardinals will be more likely to develop him into a complete player. While his chances of taking over as the number two back are slim, an injury to a key player could thrust him into the spotlight, giving him an opportunity to shine.

The final contender is long-time Cardinals player, Marcel Shipp. After fighting through the last two seasons, each with 41 yards rushing and a combined five touchdowns, Shipp is attempting to revive his career by playing a more active role in the offense. A veteran of eight years in the NFL, all with the Cardinals, Shipp needs to step forward and prove that he is the reliable back up needed to spell James.

The biggest disadvantage for Shipp is that the Cardinals are looking for a long-term replacement and at 30 (73 in RB years), he hardly fits the bill. However, Shipp is the best equipped for short yardage of the four backs at (5'11, 232), and he might prove to be a capable goal line option.

Shipp has given the Cardinals several good years of service and in a perfect world he would be kept on the team as an insurance policy. Unfortunately for Shipp, the NFL is a business and that could point to the end of his tenure. With the Cardinals participating in a youth renaissance, it could be time for this Shipp to sail.

Far from a fore-gone conclusion, this battle will rage on for the entirety of training camp. Hightower leads the way, but don't count out the crafty veteran Shipp. With a stable of quality runners, the Cardinals have a difficult decision on their hands.

While Baylark and Arrington fight for the final spot, look for Shipp to step into a role as an emergency RB. The future is with Hightower as he is in position to take over as James' understudy. This season James may not only be running from defenders, but also a rapidly approaching Hightower looking to make his mark on the NFL.

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