Cardinals' rookie Ellington outplaying veteran Mendenhall at RB

Rookie Ellington beginning to take over Cardinals' backfield

10/7/13 in NFL   |   Matthew_Shovlin   |   735 respect

Ever since Beanie Wells' thousand-yard season in 2011 (a major outlier in his career statistics), the Arizona Cardinals have failed to generate anything remotely resembling a rushing attack. Their leading rusher in 2012 was LaRod Stephens-Howling with 357 yrads (3.2 YPC), and the leading running back in yards per carry was Williams Powell at 3.7. Neither Wells (a former first-round pick) nor Ryan Williams (a second-round pick) were able to top 2.8 YPC.

The Cardinals brought in veteran Rashard Mendenhall over the offseason to address their complete lack of a run game. The 26-year-old has two thousand-yard seasons to his name, but has struggled since tearing his ACL late in 2011. His struggles have continued through five games with his new team, as he is averaging just 3.2 YPC with the Cardinals.

Oct 6, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington (38) runs with the ball during the second half against the Carolina Panthers at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY SportsThere may be an answer at running back in Arizona, however - it just isn't the player that most people were expecting. After receiving no carries and one catch in the season opener, sixth-round rookie Andre Ellington has touched the ball 7.5 per game over the past four weeks. He has looked far better than Mendenhall, ripping off 6.7 YPC and showing great ability in the passing game. The former Clemson Tiger is averaging more than twice as many yards per carry than the rest of the team (2.9 YPC).

The Cardinals have a poor offensive line, and the thought was that the team's struggles in the run game over the past year-plus have been a result of the men in the trenches. Ellington, however, is somehow finding enough space to produce on the ground. The sample size is extremely small at just 18 carries, but the YPC is impressive nonetheless.

Ellington's play has propelled him into an even timeshare with Mendenhall, the supposed feature back of this 30th ranked offense. Head coach Bruce Arians has made it clear that he prefers to lean on one runner, but even he is unable to ignore the difference in production between these two backs. In the Cardinals' Week 5 win over the Carolina Panthers, Ellington and Mendenhall each saw 30 snaps.

Though he carried the ball only seven times to Mendenhall's 17, Ellington still racked up 52 yards on the ground - nine more than Mendenhall. Ellington caught two more passes than Mendenhall for 24 more yards. All in all, Ellington averaged 7.5 yards per touch while Mendenhall averaged 2.6 - it is becoming pretty clear that Ellington is the more effective and dynamic option in the backfield.

The one hang up in Ellington becoming the undisputed lead runner is that Arians does not believe that Ellington has the body type to hold up through a heavy workload. Look no further than Ellington's 5'9'', 199 pound frame for the rationale behind Arians' comments. Arians said on Monday that Ellington's role will continue to be about 30-32 snaps per game, which would obviously limit his production and fantasy value.

Even so, talent and effectiveness can often make the strongest case in an argument. If Ellington continues his impressive play while getting about half the snaps, and Mendenhall continues to plod his way to two- and three-yard gains, it would not at all surprise me to see Ellington's role slowly grow larger than Arians suggested it would be. Ellington looks like the best runner on the Cardinals' roster, so if they want to win, they may have to find ways to get the ball in his hands more often.
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