NFC West Questions: ARIZONA CARDINALS: Who is the real Andre Ellington?
After a surprising rookie season in 2013, Andre Ellington rocketed up draft boards as word from Cardinals camp said he would get upwards of 25 touches a game. Ellington finished the preseason as a late 2nd, early 3rd round pick in most fantasy drafts. Ellington didn’t quite reach 25 carries a game, but he was close, with more than 21 touches a game until week 13 when he went down with a hip pointer, whatever that means… Nonetheless, Ellington missed the final 4 weeks of the season along with the playoffs with the hip injury. Ellington showed us a few things throughout this process, but most of all, that he can’t handle a 20 touch workload. In 2014, he posted yards per carry average of 3.3, which was 2.2 less than the 5.5 he averaged in 2013. This is incredibly perplexing, as the Cardinals offensive line improved by most standards from the year before. So, what changed? The only obvious answer to this question, in my opinion, is the workload. In 2013, Ellington owners cried for more carries, as Rashard Mendenhall (3.2 YPC in 2013) held down the top of the depth chart despite Ellington (5.5 YPC in 2013) being far more effective. In 2014, those cries were heard, but Ellington actually became Rashard Mendenhall in an Andre Ellington suit. Don’t believe me? Check out the numbers.
Rashard Mendenhall 2013: 15 games, 217 carries, 687 yards, 8 total TDs.
Andre Ellington 2014: 12 games, 201 carries, 660 yards, 5 total TDs.
We seem to have a catch 22 here. Andre Ellington cannot become elite without getting a larger workload. When given that workload, Andre Ellington cannot handle it, therefore not becoming elite.
Andre Ellington is likely better suited in a complimentary role, where he splits carries with a bigger, bruiser type back, a la…. David Johnson? The Cardinals drafted Johnson this year in the 3rd round, and have high expectations for him in his first year. David Johnson is actually bigger and taller than Rashard Mendenhall, at 6’ 1’’, 225 lbs. In my opinion, David Johnson is exactly what Andre Ellington needs. However, that means that Ellington likely will have a workload of 13-15 touches per game. I would expect for Ellington to look like a version somewhere between his 2013 and 2014 self, where he puts up a mid-4 YPC, with 150 or so carries with another 40 receptions on top of it. Put that all together, and his stat line should fall somewhere around 1000 total yards, with 5 or 6 TDs. This can be useful in a bench/flex role with high RB2 upside. However, I think that any expectations of Ellington as a bell cow that can carry a fantasy team are far too optimistic.
While Ellington didn’t live up to the hype last year, prior to his hip injury he was putting up RB2 numbers fairly consistently each week. Sure, the statlines weren’t amazing, but the volume he was getting was enough to sustain adequate production. However, I suppose “adequate” depends on when he was drafted in a league. For me, he went around the 5th round, and his production at that value was worth it in my opinion.
My biggest problem with this analysis is that it fails to even mention the fact that at no point during the regular season last year was Ellington 100% healthy. He was dealing with a tear in his foot, which I would view as incredibly damaging to what makes him an effective running back. Without a healthy foot, he was without a great deal of his lateral agility, sapping his elusiveness and exposing him to more body blows than he would normally sustain. In fact, I would go as far as to say that a big reason that he sustained his rib and hip injuries last season was because of his inability to avoid tackles.
As far as the threat of David Johnson goes, I view him as more of a threat in the event that Ellington fails to perform or gets injured. Arians has stated repeatedly that Ellington is still the lead back, that another back would have to “take the job away from him”, and that David Johnson is only there in the event that Ellington does get injured like he did last year. Arians has a reputation for his borderline brutal honesty, and I see no reason to doubt these statements by him. David Johnson profiles essentially as the same type of player as Ellington, but with less quickness and more power between the tackles. Although the greater power is a great asset, I think everyone is downplaying the importance of Ellington’s quickness and speed in the Arizona backfield. Unless more developments take place throughout the course of training camp, I wouldn’t draft David Johnson as more than a handcuff or late round flyer.
Right now, Ellington is an excellent value, and I would gladly take him at his current ADP. I think with the improvements to the offensive line and a full offseason to get healthy, Ellington is going to be extremely productive for the Cardinals.