One of the hottest players this fantasy draft season is Cardinals running back Andre Ellington, whose current ADP has him going off the board in the third round as the 14th running back selected. It’s a spot for Ellington that I’m struggling with, in no small part because of the barrage of hyperbolic statements that keep coming out regarding his role in the Arizona offense.
Back in May, Cards coach Bruce Arians said he wanted to get Ellington 25-30 touches per game as the team’s feature back. Before you start projecting his numbers over the course of 400-plus touches this season, it’s worth noting that no back—not LeSean McCoy, who led the NFL averaging 22.8 touches per game; not Adrian Peterson, not Jamaal Charles, not Matt Forte—handled such a workload last year. In fact, only eight backs averaged more than 20 touches per game.
The last back to average more than 25 touches per game over a full season was Chris Johnson during his CJ2K season of 2009, when he totaled 2509 yards and 16 TDs on 408 touches. At 5-11, 195 Johnson isn’t necessarily “bigger” than Ellington, but it’s worth noting that the workload contributed at least partially to his yards per carry declining 1.3 yards and his yards per catch being cut almost in half from 10.1 to 5.6 the following season.
So regardless of whether or not you buy that Ellington has bulked up and at 5-9, 215 pounds is ready to handle feature back duties, 25-30 touches per game simply ain’t happening.
The most recent preposterous statement was attributed to Cardinals analyst Ron Wolfley, who said during the broadcast of Arizona’s first preseason game that the coaching staff views Ellington as their version of Jamaal Charles.
The temptation is to think of the 2013 version of Charles, in which he was pure fantasy gold with 12 rushing scores (as many as any of his two previous seasons combined) and another seven receiving scores (as many as he had scored in his entire career coming into the 2013 season) on 70 catches (25 more than he’d ever had before).
Charles has Andy Reid and the Chiefs’ new offense to thank for the changes that led to his stat blow-up, so I thought it might be worth checking out Arians’ track record of throwing to his backs. The 644 receiving yards by Arizona running backs last season was the most ever by an Arians-coached attack in his 10 seasons directing NFL offenses, and the 75 catches by running backs was the second-most by an Arians backfield.
The best pass-catching season for backs under Arians came from the offensive juggernaut that was the 2002 Cleveland Browns, when Jamel White (63), William Green (16), and Jamal Jackson (3) combined for 82 receptions, 574 yards, and zero receiving scores.
Part of the reason Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb were dumping off to White, Green and Jackson has to be a nondescript receiving corps that included Kevin Johnson, Quincy Morgan, Dennis Northcutt, Andre’ Davis and the immortal Frisman Jackson. Carson Palmer doesn’t have that issue with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and rookie John Brown as quality targets.
I’m certainly not saying Ellington is a guy to avoid at all costs. I see the upside, I see the potential for him to have an expanded role in what should be a very good and very productive offense—albeit one that plays three of the better defenses in the league twice every year.
Right now Ellington would need to match the production of one of Charles’ three full seasons prior to 2013 just to return his current draft value, and the “our Jamaal Charles” stuff will only drive that draft value higher. Remember, it took Jamaal Charles five seasons to become Jamaal Charles; Ellington doesn’t have the offense or (lack of) supporting cast to make the big leap just yet. Heck, he hasn’t even had a single 18-touch game in his NFL career, let alone averaging 20 to 25.
So if someone has to be the Debbie Downer in the passenger seat white-knuckling the roll bar and asking you to pump the brakes on the Ellington hype train, I’ll take that hit. You don’t need to jump off just yet, but the point of no return is rapidly approaching.