“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
If Wikipedia can be trusted, the iconic opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was meant to capture the zeitgeist of 18th-century Paris amidst the turmoil of the French Revolution.
But couldn’t Dickens have just as easily been describing Andre Ellington’s first two NFL seasons?
It could be argued Ellington was the best running back in the NFL on a per touch basis in 2013. His electrifying second-half performance, combined with a few choice offseason sound bites from Arizona GM Steve Keim and Head Coach Bruce Arians, conspired to make Ellington a late second round pick in 2014 fantasy drafts.
While Ellington didn’t see the 25-30 weekly touches Arians suggested, the Cardinals were plenty serious about running their offense through Ellington in 2014. His touches per game (carries + receptions) nearly doubled, jumping from 10.46 as a rookie to 20.58 last season.
When he was on the field, Ellington answered the bell for fantasy owners. He ranked as the cumulative RB10 from Week 1 through his last full game in Week 12. But there was a problem lurking behind Ellington’s solid counting stats:
|Year||Rush Yds/Att||Rush Yds After Contact/Att||Missed Tackles Forced %||15+ Yard Run %||Fantasy Points/Touch|
In stark contrast to his hyper-efficient 2013, advanced metrics indicate any success Ellington managed in 2014 was primarily volume driven. With the Cardinals’ decision to invest a third round pick in David Johnson - an athletically gifted RB out of Northern Iowa - it’s no guarantee a heavy workload will be there to bail Ellington out this season.
So what should fantasy owners do with Ellington, whose ADP has settled in the mid-fourth round?
Safe answers include ‘proceed with caution’, ‘avoid him altogether’, or ‘just draft Johnson in the 10th round instead’. But when I look at the other RBs currently being drafted in the mid-late fourth round - Latavius Murray, Carlos Hyde, Joseph Randle - Ellington stands out. He’s more proven, still possesses Top-10 RB upside, and there’s numerous reasons to believe he can rebound this season.
He’s Finally Healthy
Ellington suffered a partial foot tendon tear late in the preseason last year, and while he didn’t miss any games with the injury, he was robbed of the explosiveness that made him so dangerous as a rookie. Six weeks after suffering the injury, Ellington acknowledged the foot was still bothering him, and wouldn’t feel better until he could rest it in the offseason. Unfortunately, the offseason came sooner than planned after Ellington suffered a hip pointer in Week 13, and was subsequently shut down to have sports hernia surgery.
The pile-up of injuries, combined with Ellington’s history of foot and ankle surgeries from his college days, lend credence to concerns he’s too small (5’9’’, 199 lbs.) to handle a heavy workload, but I’m not as worried as some for two reasons:
Health is fleeting for any NFL player, and injuries are tough to predict.
Ellington proved in 2013 he doesn’t need a heavy workload to be a fantasy difference maker. He finished the year as a RB2 in standard leagues, despite averaging just over 10 touches per game.
A healthy Andre Ellington has earned the benefit of the doubt, and if early reports are any indication, it sounds like he’s back to his old self. Mike Jurecki of Fox Sports reported Ellington is showing his previous ‘elusive quickness’ in OTAs, and Ellington himself had this to say about his foot back in early-May:
"It's like night and day. During the season I was limited on some cuts going to the right, pushing off my left foot. I'm close to doing a lot of things I've done in the past. Just (this week) I was able to do all my cuts and put a lot more pressure on my foot."
Bruce Arians Says He’s the Guy
We can learn something from the tongue bath Bruce Arians gave Ellington last offseason.
Around this time last year, Arians said he wanted to build his offense around Ellington. He referred to Ellington as his number one back, and a bell cow. In retrospect, Arians did exactly what he told us he was going to do - he rode Ellington until the wheels came off. So shouldn’t we take Arians at his word this year when he says “Andre Ellington is still the focal point of the offense”?
In a January interview with Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, Arians made it clear how important getting his backfield - specifically Ellington - involved in the passing game was to the Cardinals’ offensive plans:
"I think Andre Ellington's injury early in the season set us way back offensively because we had put so much time and effort into his attack," Arians explained to Dan Bickley and Vince Marotta. "And when he wasn't able to practice, we lost all the passing we had worked on. I learned a valuable lesson about putting too many eggs in one basket."
It’s a sound bite that frames Arizona’s selection of David Johnson in this year’s NFL Draft perfectly. Johnson comes out of Northern Iowa with an outstanding athletic profile and adequate size (6’1’’, 224 lbs.) to bang between the tackles, but his college tape suggests he’d be miscast as an inside runner. He wins with soft hands out of the backfield and is dangerous in space - the same qualities that make Ellington such a great fit for Arians’ scheme.
If Arians really learned from what went wrong last year, he’ll rotate Ellington out more during games to keep him fresh. Johnson’s presence allows Arizona to stick to their game plan when Ellington comes off the field, and acts as an insurance policy against Ellington’s body breaking down again.
History suggests we can take Arians at his word when it comes to his backfield plans, and based on recent quotes, it’s clear he envisions Johnson as more of a fail-safe rather than a power complement who will relegate Ellington to change of pace duties:
“I think Andre will continue his same role,” Arians said. “We’ll keep him healthy and let him continue to develop as a player, but the nice thing David can do is he can do everything Andre does, so you don’t have to change if there was an injury.”
“(Johnson’s) got good power, but his receiving ability is as close to Andre’s as anybody I’ve seen,” Arians said.
Carson Palmer is Healthy
Arizona went 6-0 in Carson Palmer’s starts last season, outscoring their opponents by double digits in four of the six games. They scored nearly 26 points per game with Palmer, compared to an anemic 15.5 points per game without him.
Palmer was able to guide Arizona to commanding leads, or keep them involved in close contests - conditions which created favorable game scripts for RB fantasy production. Without Palmer in the lineup, opposing defenses didn’t have to respect the Cardinals’ passing attack, making it easy for them to key in on Ellington, and shut down the run.
Not surprisingly, Ellington’s fantasy points per game increased by 38% when Palmer was on the field.
|Games||Rush Att/G||Rush Yds/G||Targ/G||Rec/G||FFPPG|
Luckily for the Cardinals (and their running backs), Palmer’s rehab from ACL surgery is reportedly going well. He was cleared for 11-on-11 drills in early-June, and says he feels 100% heading into training camp. A healthy Carson Palmer will be a huge shot in the arm for the Arizona running game.
The Offensive Line Should be Improved
Ellington was stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage on 12.9% of his runs, the fourth worst rate in the league last season (minimum 150 carries). His foot injury and the stacked defensive fronts he faced following Palmer’s ACL tear were partially to blame, but the Cardinals’ 24th ranked offensive line (per Football Outsiders) didn’t do him any favors.
The good news is the arrow’s pointing up for Arizona’s run blocking unit headed into 2015. The Cardinals added LG Mike Iupati, the second best run blocking guard in the NFL last year (per Pro Football Focus). Their first round pick - RT D.J. Humphries - has drawn favorable comparisons to D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Jared Veldheer remains one of the best left tackles in the league. And Jonathan Cooper, the underachieving seventh overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, is finally back to full health after dealing with injuries in his first two seasons.
Our own Matt Bitonti has moved Arizona up to 16th in his Offensive Line Rankings, and notes they could become a top tier group if the center, right guard, and right tackle positions can be locked down early in the preseason.
Many in the fantasy community see David Johnson as a reason to be leery of Andre Ellington this season. I prefer to view him as a reason Ellington can remain healthy, and return to his explosive pre-injury form.
Arizona RBs combined to average 29.56 total touches per game last season. With the return of Palmer stabilizing the offense, and the addition of another capable back in Johnson, it’s fair to expect the Cardinals to employ a more balanced attack this season.
Suppose the total number of touches for Arizona’s RBs increases modestly to about 31 per game this year. If Ellington took on a conservative 50% of the team’s RB touches (as opposed to the 71% he handled from Weeks 1-12 last season), he’d be looking at a floor of around 15.5 touches per game. Is that enough opportunity to support a low-end RB1?
In short, yes. Lamar Miller finished last season as the ninth ranked fantasy RB on 254 touches (15.8 per game). In 2013, Fred Jackson touched the ball 253 times and was the 11th ranked RB. And in 2012, Ellington’s former Clemson teammate C.J. Spiller parlayed 15.6 touches per game into the eighth best RB season in standard leagues.
Touchdown potential will likely cap Ellington’s ceiling closer to the Top-15 RB range. He’s scored just nine total TDs over two NFL seasons, while the aforementioned RBs each had at least eight total TDs in their low-end RB1 seasons. Ellington was actually a strong option at the goal line last year, converting three of his five attempts from inside the five-yard line into TDs, but Johnson may end up Arizona’s primary red zone option by virtue of his size.
Even if he won't score TDs in bunches, Ellington has the potential to go nuclear in any given game, and his receiving totals provide a safe week-to-week floor. He's capable of returning value at his current ADP (RB23), even if his share of Arizona's backfield touches dips significantly from last season.
Ellington proved he can shred NFL defenses as recently as 2013.
By the start of the season, he should be 100% over the foot injury that sapped his explosiveness in 2014.
Bruce Arians is talking up Ellington as the focal point of the offense, just as he did last year when he...made Ellington the focal point of the offense.
A healthy Carson Palmer improves the outlook of every Cardinals’ skill position player.
Arizona’s offensive line projects as one of the league’s most improved units.
David Johnson will help ease the physical burden on Ellington, and there may even be enough touches to go around for both backs to be productive.
Ellington may be healthy to start the season, but how long can he stay that way?
His efficiency stats fell off a cliff last season, and a big workload won’t be there to bail him out this year.
David Johnson is a unique prospect some scouts have compared to Le’Veon Bell. There’s a non-zero chance he improves as an inside runner and wins the lead back job with a strong camp.
|Rushes||Rush Yds||Rush TDs||Rec||Rec Yds||Rec TDs|
In his 2015 Arizona Cardinals Outlook on The Fake Football, Rich Hribar states he doesn’t see Ellington as much of a value at his current ADP:
“I believe Ellington will bounce back healthy, but I rarely find myself in a position where I like his price point. That lower-end RB2 price point is fine in context, but I simply prefer Jonathan Stewart, and even backs like C.J. Spiller and Ameer Abdullah a little after him who I believe provide similar types of scoring for my teams.”
Thomas Casale of Fantasy Sharks also views the addition of Johnson as a benefit to Ellington:
“Johnson isn’t going to steal Ellington’s job. He’s going to come in and get a few carries a game. That’s fine with me because Ellington is more productive on a per touch basis rather than a 300-carry back. Ellington doesn’t need 25 carries a game because he’s so explosive when healthy he maximizes his 18-20 touches.”