In one season, Andre Ellington has gone from sixth-round draft pick to dynamic featured back for the Arizona Cardinals.
Team after team passed on Ellington until Arizona made him the 187th player chosen in that draft. He wasn’t even the first running back the Cardinals chose. Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor went to Arizona in the fifth round.
Ellington, elusive and exceedingly quick, turned out to be a hidden gem.
After amassing a combined 1,023 yards rushing and receiving as a rookie, Ellington’s role for the Cardinals has expanded and big things are expected of him.
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As long as the 5-foot-9, 199-pound former Clemson standout can withstand the added punishment a higher profile will bring,
“He’s so explosive. He’s so quick,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “His vision is so good. Selfishly, I want to use him in the passing game, but selfishly I want to use him in the running game, too. … It’s hard to predict what he’s going to do. One of the most important things for him is to stay healthy.”
The Cardinals have no one else who can do the things Ellington does – run with style and speed and catch passes anywhere on the field.
“I’m very confident,” he said. “Last year, I wasn’t aware of what my role would be on the team. But now I kind of have an idea.”
Ellington was no immediate sensation as a rookie.
He did not carry the ball and caught one pass for 13 yards in the season-opening loss at St. Louis.
The first glimpse of what he can do came in week six at San Francisco, where he carried the ball seven times for 56 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown run, and caught five passes for 36 yards.
A miserable game against Seattle followed (three rushes for 3 yards, two catches for 10 yards), then came the breakout game against Atlanta.
The moment came when, with the ball on the Arizona 20, Ellington took a handoff and raced around and past the Falcons on an 80-yard touchdown run, tied for third-longest in franchise history. He finished with 154 yards rushing in 15 carries.
On Dec. 15 at Tennessee, he gained 71 yards in 10 carries and caught four passes for 87 yards. With that performance, Ellington joined Hall of Famer Ollie Matson as the only Cardinal rookie to run for at least 70 yards and catch passes for at least 80 yards.
Ellington finished the season with 652 yards in 118 attempts, a 5.53 yards-per-carry average that was the best in the NFL for backs with at least 100 rushes.
Coach Bruce Arians quickly anointed Ellington the team’s lead back, replacing the retired Rashard Mendenhall.
Ellington didn’t do a lot physically to prepare for the new role.
“I built up the upper body a little bit more than I was last year,” he said. “Not too much. I didn’t want to get slow.”
The Cardinals plan to use Ellington in ways that minimize the chance he'll take a big hit. In addition to running back, he’s learned all three receiver positions. Arians likes sending him to the flat for a pass and a one-on-one matchup with a defender.
“It helps a lot. It gets me in space,” Ellington said. “That’s kind of like how I want to play. I want to play in space. I don’t have to take on those hits time after time. I'll take it in space all day.”
Don’t expect him to battle for extra yards, though.
“If I feel a guy bigger than me is coming after me, I’m going to go down,” he said. “I’m not going to take on that hit. Once I get the yards I can get, I’m not going to fight for any more.”
Arians appreciates that approach.
“Most guys who have long careers know that,” he said. “The guys who run real tough and try to run everybody over, they’ve got real short careers.”
A hamstring injury at the NFL combine and concerns about his size and durability apparently led to him falling so far in the draft. He still uses that as motivation.
So he’s relishing this opportunity.
“He’s in great shape and he’s assumed the role of leader now,” Arians said. “He’s not a rookie anymore. He carries himself differently. He’s a much more confident guy and more than ready to be the bell cow of the offense.”