Crowded Backfield Confusing for Cards

Instead of addressing quarterback, which appeared to be the primary concern in Arizona, the Cardinals chose to crowd their roster with tailbacks. So what does the future hold for Beanie Wells and Co.?


Cardinals running back Beanie Wells has been a disappointment and could be jettisoned in favor of second-round selection Ryan Williams. (Christian Petersen/Getty)

If there was one organization that appeared to need immediate help at the game's most important position in the draft, common sense indicated it was the Cardinals.

Arizona played four different quarterbacks during a dreadful 5-11 campaign in 2010, and they combined to complete just 50.8 percent of their passes, put together an underwater touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10-to-19 and assembled a passer rating of only 60.5. Veteran Derek Anderson was a flop, winning two of nine starts, and then none of the three rookie signal callers -- fifth-round pick John Skelton and undrafted free agents Max Hall and Richard Bartel -- did anything to suggest he has a future as a No. 1.

However, the Cardinals made eight selections over the course of three days on draft weekend, and not one of them was a QB. With the fifth pick in the first round, they quite obviously weren't sold on Missouri's Blaine Gabbert and passed on him in favor of LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, which is excusable since Gabbert is far from a sure thing and Peterson could be special right out of the shoot. But by the time they were on the clock again in Round 2, they had missed out on second-tier prospects like Andy Dalton of TCU and Colin Kaepernick of Nevada.

All the more confusing, Arizona ended up taking two running backs in its first five picks, this after getting Beanie Wells in the first round just two Aprils ago.

Second rounder Ryan Williams, a 5-9, 212-pounder out of Virginia Tech, was one of the premier ball carriers in the draft and isn't expected to be a complementary piece. While fifth rounder Anthony Sherman, a 5-11, 242-pounder from Connecticut, is more likely to be a lead blocker than a ball carrier in the pros, his presence alone crowds a roster that already features Wells, leading rusher Tim Hightower and special-teams ace LaRod Stephens-Howling.

Wells started off slowly in 2009 but made strides down the stretch, finishing his rookie season with 176 carries for 793 yards (4.5-yard average) and seven touchdowns. With big things expected of him in 2010, the former Ohio State Buckeye disappointed to the tune of 116 carries for 397 yards (3.4-yard average) and two TDs. Perhaps because of his bruising style as a runner, injuries have been a problem for him going back to his time in Columbus.

Even if coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves are hiding behind buzz terms like "healthy competition," targeting Williams suggests they are ready to cut their losses with Wells after two lackluster years.

"If things pan out like Arizona hopes, Williams will be the team's primary running back as early as this season," says Brad Wilbricht, who is the publisher of AZRedReport.com. "Despite more pressing areas of need, the Cardinals took Williams with their second-round pick and will need to see immediate results on the field to avoid being second-guessed.

Wells has talent, which is why he was chosen 31st overall not too long ago, but it's difficult to determine what he's worth and whether or not another team would give up anything of value to acquire him.

"Wells has been an enigma since arriving in the desert, even more so after the addition of Williams," Wilbricht says. "After a promising rookie campaign, Wells was clearly a step slow last year and his long-term future with the Cardinals is uncertain. Wells could be dealt in a trade for a quarterback."

As for Hightower, who led the team with 736 yards rushing a year ago and has scored 23 touchdowns in 48 games, Wilbricht believes he needs to stop fumbling if he wants to continue being a factor on offense.

"Hightower has struggled with ball security in his career but is much more explosive and versatile than Wells at this point," he says. "Hightower is also a better blocker than Wells, a quality Whisenhunt values greatly, and would be a solid complementary runner to Williams."

Should the end result be Williams the lead ball carrier and Hightower the secondary option, there is still room for Stephens-Howling because he averaged 27.2 yards on kickoff returns in 2010 -- scored twice, too.

"Stephens-Howling earned a few chances in the running game last season, but his primary responsibilities will continue to be in the return game," says Wilbricht. "He can fill in as a scat back as needed, but his chances will be limited with such a crowded group in the backfield."

Whisenhunt cut his teeth in Pittsburgh and, therefore, has an appreciation for the ground game, despite his best offensive player lining up at wideout: Larry Fitzgerald.

"After being selected in the fifth round, Sherman should be the starter out of the gate at fullback," Wilbricht says. "Like most teams, the Cardinals don't utilize the fullback much in the running game, but Sherman will be able to contribute as a receiver in addition to his blocking duties."

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It'll hurt to do so since he was a recent first rounder and signed an $11.8 million contract with $6.3 million in guaranteed money, but the Cardinals are probably just going to have to jettison Wells and get nothing in return. If they're to be in the mix to trade for an experienced passer like Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb, throwing Wells into the deal won't sweeten the pot enough to make a difference. Although he hasn't been given the dubious "injury prone" label currently burdening Wells, it is worth nothing that Williams missed a month or so last season in Blacksburg with a hamstring problem.

And you can stop begging him via Twitter, Cardinals fans. Kurt Warner isn't coming out of retirement. Not even if Williams is the next Marshall Faulk.


John Crist is an NFL analyst for Scout com, a voter for the Heisman Trophy and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America.


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