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Spotlight: Chris Wells

posted by Mark Wimer on Aug 15th


Mark Wimer's thoughts

During free agency, Tim Hightower was traded to Washington for a conditional draft pick, signaling a new era in Arizona. Hightower's departure clears the way for a new running back to emerge as the lead ball carrier in Arizona - the question is will it be Chris Wells or rookie Ryan Williams?

Prior to Hightower's departure, the team had already taken steps to remake their offense during the NFL Draft, acquiring Williams with the 38th pick (Round Two, Pick Six), and added lead-blocking FB Anthony Sherman at pick 136 (Round Five, Pick Five). According to Footballguys.com's draft guru Matt Waldman in his encyclopedic Rookie Scouting Portfolio , "Williams has precocious talent with explosiveness and balance in tight spaces, and he is likely to develop into an every-down back at the NFL level. Waldman ranked Williams as the second-best running back (from the fantasy perspective) in the 2011 draft class.

Part of the reason the team felt compelled to add another running back to the stable in Arizona is the regression of third-year player Chris Wells. Wells' numbers fell off in almost every category from 2009 to 2010, from 176/793/7 rushing and 12/143/0 receiving over 16 games during 2010 to 116/397/2 rushing with 5/74/0 receiving over 13 games last year. Part of the decline was due to the woeful passing attack which couldn't move the team down the field; teams basically stacked the box and dared the Cardinals to pass, stifling Wells. But, in the same circumstances the departed Hightower managed 153/736/5 rushing and 21/136/0 receiving (a 4.8 yards per carry average compared to Wells' 3.4 yards per carry last season). The Cardinals were dead last in rushing attempts (320) and rushing yardage (1,388) in the league last year. To put it bluntly, Wells has not developed into the game-breaking lead back the Cardinals envisioned when they selected him 31st overall during the 2009 NFL Draft. Wells hasn't been able to play through various minor dings and nicks, leaving the door open first for Hightower and now (most likely) for Williams.

In the first preseason game, Wells had multiple chances inside the 10 yard line vs. Oakland, and he failed to convert those chances into TDs, continuing a sad theme we saw during his 2010 campaign when he scored just two TDs all year.

In contrast, Williams out-gained Wells in the first preseason tilt, with 44 combined yards (4/21/0 rushing with 1/23/0 receiving, vs. Wells' 6/22/0 rushing), and he had a better yards-per-carry average, too (5.25 vs. Wells' 3.5). The sample size is too small to get really excited about, but Williams displayed more explosiveness and big-play ability than we've seen from Wells in recent games.

Positives

  • Wells is a NFL veteran now, with two seasons in the Cardinals' organization under his belt
  • Wells is currently penciled in as the team's starter due to his more advanced pass-blocking skills
  • Wells won't have to chase Tim Hightower for touches this year

Negatives

  • Wells has Ryan Williams breathing down his neck for touches
  • Wells has problems playing through minor injuries - he hasn't proven to be durable at this level
  • Wells' low yards-per-carry average from 2010 is continuing so far during 2011 - if he can't step it up, the team may turn to Williams sooner rather than later

Final thoughts

At the start of training camp, it looks like Wells' greater capacity as a pass blocker may keep him atop the depth chart while Williams learns the ropes at this level. However, I expect Williams' talents as a runner and pass catcher to earn him an increasing amount of playing time as the season goes on (and as Williams sharpens his pass blocking skills). It is only a matter of time before Williams takes over as the lead back in this committee, and that will come sooner rather than later, in my opinion. I'm one of the most enthusiastic Footballguys when it comes to his prospects, ranking Williams at 23rd on my redraft RB board as of early August (20th in the PPR paradigm), and Chris Wells is outside of my top 50 as a result of my belief in Williams.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

Raiderfan32904 said:

With the release of Tim Hightower, it's going to get interesting in Arizona. The prediction here is that the Cardinals cleared the way to make Ryan Williams a quick contributor. The Cardinals had him in their top 15 overall on draft night. So when he fell to the mid second round, they pounced on Williams to solidify the ground game, which had been inconsistent either through durability (Wells) or fumbling concerns (Hightower).

The smallish Williams had a breakout season in 2009 with the Virginia Tech Hokies, and an injury plagued 2010 season, before declaring early for the draft and leaving 2 years of NCAA eligibility on the table. But he looks ready for the step up to the pros as he has shown ability to be an explosive runner both inside and outside of the tackles. He won't be confused with a power back, but has nice burst, drives his legs and has a propensity for bouncing off or spinning away from tacklers.

His competition is mainly Beanie Wells, with LaRod Stephens-Howling also in the backfield mix. But Beanie's long documented health problems create perhaps the easiest path for any of the 2011 rookie running backs to get a shot at the lead role. Williams's talents are apparent, as a guy who can get behind defenders quickly to make big plays, yet also as a smart runner who can pick the right holes near the line of scrimmage. One of Williams' best assets is his patience, which is hard for many RBs to exhibit early in their pro careers. His cutback abilities also make him stand out.

At 5-9, 205, Williams is not yet about to take over as a featured back. At least not in week #1. He will likely need to learn NFL pass protection schemes to stay on the field, and it is likely Wells will get the most snaps early on. I think he gradually overtakes Wells, as it will be readily apparent that Williams has NFL caliber moves, and he gets it done on a consistent basis.

gianmarco said:

Just something to keep in mind for those predicting a lot of carries for Williams:

Since 2001 (last 10 yrs):

--There have been 36 rookie RBs that have 150 or more carries
--18 of the 36 were 1st round picks
--Only 6 of the 36 were 2nd round picks

Here are the 2nd round picks and their situations on how they got those carries:

2009 LeSean McCoy -- He had 155 carries and got those because Westbrook got injured and there was no one else. 2nd on the team in carries was Leonard Weaver with 70
2006 MJD -- Had 166 carries but was the #2 behind Fred Taylor's 231 carries
2004 Julius Jones -- Had 197 carries and only got them when Eddie George got hurt. Julius had only 5 carries heading into week 11 and then got a monster workload to end the year on a tear
2002 Clinton Portis -- We know the deal with him. First of all, it's Shanahan where anything can happen. And he had no competition whatsoever. Drafted as the lead RB
2001 Travis Henry -- He was drafted as the starter in Buffalo. Shawn Bryson was the #2 RB. He had 213 carries
2001 Anthony Thomas -- 278 carries and one of the best cases to hope for if you're a Ryan Williams owner. I didn't follow them much there and don't remember the situation, but he was clearly given the load over James Allen's 135 carries.

FF Ninja said:

Let's not knock on the guy for projecting such a reasonable rushing total. It was just a year ago that the majority of people here predicted that Arizona was going to magically transition into a running team and Beanie was going to light it up, yet only 298 RB rushes were totaled for the entire team.

While I feel like Kolb's addition has to improve the team somewhat, I'm still not sold on Kolb. I think Orton would've been a better trade. Either way, I feel like they'll be able to do a little better than year's past. In the last 5 years the Cards have managed the following rushes/ypc numbers: 377/3.3, 366/3.7, 306/3.6, 328/4.3, 298/4.3.

I was very down on Beanie last year due to the situation. Their defense got worse and their passing attack went down the crapper. He never had a chance, but the hype train didn't falter. This year is a total reversal. Everyone is going ape**** over a second round pick (RB34) while Beanie is slipping to RB41. I really don't know much about Williams but I do know that Beanie looks like a beast when he's healthy. He wasn't enough of a beast to pull a Steven Jackson last year on that terrible squad, but he could have a really, really good year if Kolb is decent. Unfortunately, their defense is going to be atrocious, so they won't have the luxury of running the ball all day. Expect relatively low team totals once again.

kutta said:

If Beanie stays healthy, and he doesn't fumble, he will get the majority of carries all year. Wiz has shown time and time again that he does not like to start rookies, and he makes rookies earn their time. The first few games of the year will be big for Beanie - if he can string together a few good games, the job is his and Williams will be the backup all year. The Cards start off against the Panthers, Redskins, and Seahawks. That should be a relatively easy stretch of games to let Beanie secure himself as the guy.

Also, the Cards have never been a good rushing team. But this year they have upgraded the line, especially the TE position, so there is at least a little bit of optimism that the running game will be better this year.

In Beanie's rookie year he had 800/7, and Hightower added 600/8 - so that's 1400/15 rushing for the two main guys. A lot has changed (no more Warner and Boldin, but the line is better now) so this may not be a good indicator, but it does show that Beanie has some decent numbers in him if he is healthy.

I'm going to predict Beanie gets 1000/10 this year. Williams will be mostly a backup and third down guy.

mlball77 said:

As a Williams dynasty owner, I'm happy about the Hightower trade, but I never expected Williams to be named the starter or lead back right out of the gate; particularly given the shortened training camp period etc. Wells is a talented player and knows the system. It makes sense for him to be given the lead back gig.

For Williams, I guess I'd be looking/hoping for one of these two things to happen (preferably #2):

1) Wells plays well and remains the starter, but Williams is so impressive right out of the gate that he carves out a significant role as a rookie (and then even more next year).

2) Wells struggles/fumbles more than the coaches can tolerate or he has trouble staying healthy. This would give Williams a much bigger role in his rookie year and give him the chance to lock in the feature back role going forward.

For this season, I'm expecting Wells to maintain the lead role for most or all of the year (odds are in his favor, imo).


Chris Wells projections

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