Will Andre Ellington Ever Be a True Lead Back?

Andre Ellington broke down after 250 touches through 12 games last year. Can he handle the weight of a full workload?

Everybody remembers the key moments from the end of Star Wars: A New Hope, right? The Rebel Alliance has had a resounding victory at the Battle of Yavin, destroying the Death Star through intellect, bravery, and a little luck. Much celebration occurred, even though they had to eventually abandon the moon of Yavin IV for the icy wasteworld of Hoth.

The metaphor I want you to consider here, however, is that of the makeup of the strike team in the first assault on the Death Star. X-Wings are often the most popular and recognizable fighters in the Rebel Fleet, but when you get down to it, they are small –- albeit quick -– and don’t hold up well under heavy fire. You need to strategically deploy them in order to maximize their effectiveness. Most every squadron in the Battle of Yavin also had a Y-Wing with it –- the larger, heavier bomb with massive proton torpedoes attached to it –- for support and to take the brunt of the damage. Were they fast? No, not at all, and they couldn’t maneuver worth a lick. But they were the necessary “other half” to the X-Wing.

In the same way, Bruce Arians' recent news about wanting a bigger back from the draft to pair with Andre Ellington shouldn’t be news. Not only was that always the plan when the Cardinals signed Jonathan Dwyer last year, as Ellington just can’t hold up to a lead back workload. He is the X-Wing; he needs his Y-Wing.

I Can’t Shake Him!

Almost no backfield in the league at this point has only a one-back system. In fact, the only teams that ran enough with one player to be considered that at all are Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay, Dallas, Chicago, and Baltimore. Even in San Francisco and Green Bay, backups Carlos Hyde and James Starks spelled their top dogs fairly frequently. With the way the league has evolved -- into multiple formations, passing-heavy, and fast-paced offenses -- the days of the regular 300-time rusher no longer exist.

This is why, when Arians first talked about Ellington receiving a ridiculous amount of carries last offseason, many of us were skeptical. It even harkened back to Bills' offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett's vaguely unaware comment about C.J. Spiller getting "the ball until he throws up” in 2013. With Ellington’s increased volume, his effectiveness and efficiency decreased exponentially, and he spent a quarter of the season on the injured reserve. But just how badly did he perform?

We can find out via numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a measure of more than yardage and more than touchdowns; it assigns a value to each play based on how much that play increased the team’s chances of scoring on the drive. Add up all these changes -– measured in expected points -– and you get a fuller picture of a player’s true worth. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

The table below shows Ellington’s NFL career, represented in terms of Rushing NEP and Reception NEP, and their corresponding ranks for running backs with 100 or more rushes in those seasons. How bleak do things look for this one-time lead runner?

YearRushesRush NEPRush NEP/PRec NEP
20131177.01 (10th)0.06 (t-7th)28.31 (9th)
2014*201-28.34 (43rd)-0.14 (t-40th)18.38 (10th)

After a stellar rookie year, Ellington’s numbers dropped sharply in 2014. At the pace he was on through 12 games, Ellington would have had 268 carries and 61 receptions. Nearly 330 touches is a massive number for a player who measures in at just 5’9” and 195 pounds.

Interestingly, though he’d been plagued by injuries all season long, where Ellington really took a nosedive last season was in Week 10 against St. Louis. His yards per carry dipped below 2.5 for only the second time that season, and wouldn’t rise above that again for the rest of the year. Why do I call this the literal “break point”? This was the first week after a stretch of four games where Ellington touched the ball 25 times per game. That size of a frame is simply not meant to handle that kind of punishment, especially considering he was suffering through an injury for a lot of the season.

He has been in the top 10 at the position in receiving value each of his seasons in the league. Why ask him to do much more than that, when he excels so much at that part of the game? What Ellington brings to the table, he has always brought to the table: high upside on every run, in low volume, with a heavy dose of great ability in the passing game. You don’t need him to be a between-the-tackles runner; his job is elsewhere.

Don’t Get Cocky, Kid

So, what are the Cardinals' options to offer some relief to their speedy centerpiece? A few free agent options are still floating around, in the form of Stevan Ridley and -- if you're into 4.90 40-yard dashes -- Michael Bush. These two have proven power run credentials and short yardage value, despite limitations on passing downs.

Another option, should he become available in a trade, is Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings. Peterson's talent and likely cost -– some reports have the Vikings expecting two second-round picks –- would instantly relegate Ellington to a backup role, but this trade seems less and less likely by the day. The Vikings are saying publicly that Peterson will remain in Minnesota through the 2015 season, despite claims by Peterson’s camp to the contrary.

The best bet for Arizona will likely come in late April, early May, on draft day. With a second- or third-round pick, they should be able to walk away with strong back, perhaps David Johnson, a 6’1”, 225-pound runner out of Northern Iowa. As one of my favorite backs in this class, I’d consider this a huge victory for the Cardinals and a huge relief for Andre Ellington.