No, Andre Ellington Won't Get 400 Touches for the Arizona Cardinals in 2014
If you're a seasoned NFL fan, you know that everything said in the lead up to the NFL Draft should be taken with a very healthy dose of suspicion. Teams are very protective of their draft plans, and usually won’t broadcast their intentions and possibly ruin the chance to land the prospect they like.
But as soon as the draft ends, most fans revert to believing everything that coaches and general managers say. Why is that?
As we enter June and July, we’ll be in the thick of the “he’s in the best shape of his life” or “we’re really looking to get him involved” or “we’re going to give him carries until he pukes” season. Just like pre-draft rumors, these words should be examined with a good bit of doubt, because what team is going to start laying out plans and depth chart assessments before training camp and the preseason?
Heck, what team is going to give out that information at all? What would it benefit a team to say that their promising young running back is going to get 25-30 touches per game next season? That’s the question everyone needs to consider when evaluating Tuesday’s news out of Cardinals’ camp.
Arizona head coach Bruce Arians told the media Tuesday (per Mike Jurecki of FOX Sports Radio) that Andre Ellington is the number one back on the roster, and that he “expects him to get 25-30 touches per game.” Let’s consider what that actually means, and if we should believe any sort of similar statement we hear this offseason.
Bruce Arians is perfectly justified in liking Andre Ellington. Here at numberFire, we like him too. Using our Net Expected Points metric, which you can learn more about here, we saw that Ellington was one of the most productive backs in the NFL when he got his touches in 2013.
Ellington finished 10th among running backs with 100 or more carries in Rushing NEP, and ended up eighth on a per-rush NEP basis. In fact, on the average rushing attempt, Ellington earned more NEP than Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson, and Marshawn Lynch in 2013.
The Cardinals' shifty rusher also finished in the top-10 in Reception NEP among that same qualified group of backs, hauling in 39 catches and posting a healthy NEP number on passes that he caught, leaving him ranked between LeSean McCoy and Pierre Thomas.
So what we can know for certain based on Arian's comments is that the Cardinals like Andre Ellington. The 2013 sixth-round pick exceeded all expectations last year, and getting him more involved in the offense makes perfect sense.
But let's address the elephant in the room at this point. It's okay to want to get Ellington more involved. But giving him 400 touches is beyond excessive.
In case you didn't do the math, 400 touches would be 16 games of 25 touches per game, and based on Arian's statement, that's what we're to expect from Ellington in 2014. So either Arians doesn't have his math quite right, or we're dealing with a bit of hyperbole and coach speak here.
Ellington finished last season with under 160 total touches. The 2013 NFL leaders at the running back position, LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte, both fell a decent amount of touches short of hitting the 400 minimum laid out by Arians for his running back. So let's dial back the hyperbole here, and deal with the reality of the running back situation in Arizona and the NFL.
The NFL is a tough place for backs, as it's much harder to base an efficient offense around the running game. Running back NEP numbers are low compared to their colleagues under center or at wideout, because chunks of 3 to 5 yards don't earn Expected Points as quickly as 20-yard receptions or 80-yard bombs.
And yet the balance that the running game brings to an offense remains somewhere in the "statistics can't measure" grey area of football. So teams will continue to run the ball, but that doesn't mean simply giving any running back with short-term success the keys to the offense and a 300-touch workload.
Among the top-10 backs in Rushing NEP, only three had 300 touches or more (Charles, McCoy and Knowshon Moreno). Four of the top-10 backs in the same metric averaged fewer than 10 touches per game.
Some running backs are better suited to smaller workloads, and the versatile but relatively small Ellington seems to fit this mold perfectly. Ellington is one of the three lightest backs (in terms of weights given at NFLDraftScout.com) to get 50 or more carries as a rookie since 2011, coming in 20 pounds lighter than workhorses like Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and Alfred Morris.
So it's reasonable to expect an increase in workload for the second-year Ellington, but the amount of carries proposed by Bruce Arians would be more than he - and nearly any other back in the league - can handle. His role last season seemed to fit him like a glove, and a smart coach like Arians ought to know that it would be unwise to try to turn Ellington into a workhorse when he's built to be a versatile, playmaking back.
Ellington is a talented and dynamic player who will continue to help the Cardinals' offense for years to come, but he's not a 400 touch guy. Hopefully Bruce Arians knows that, too, and is simply giving us more of a reason to not trust what coaches say in May, since we already don't trust them in February, March or April.