Not long ago, Rashard Mendenhall was considered to be one of the better young running backs in the NFL.
A first-round pick out of Illinois in the 2008 draft, he had rushed for 1,108 yards and seven touchdowns in 2009 before tallying 1,273 yards and 13 scores in 2010, when he helped lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to Super Bowl XLV.
Mendenhall rushed for 63 yards and a touchdown in the game, but a late fumble ended a fourth quarter drive and led to a Packers score. Pittsburgh lost the game 28-25.
The following season was going well enough for Mendenhall, as he had tallied 928 yards and nine scores through 15 games, but a torn ACL in his right knee in a Week 17 win over the Browns derailed things and now, less than two years later, he’s an Arizona Cardinal working on a one-year contract.
“I don’t really think about that,” he said when asked if he feels like he has to re-prove himself as an NFL player. “For me I’m here right now, everything’s going great.
“I just look forward to grow and build off of that.”
Though Mendenhall, who rushed for just 182 yards last season, may not see a need to reassert himself, the Cardinals would certainly benefit if he does. As a team, Arizona rushed for a league-worst 1,204 yards last season, which is a number 10 running backs bested. On their own.
So it’s not like there’s any pressure on Mendenhall to fill anyone’s shoes or keep a strong running game going.
But that does not mean the team didn’t recognize a need to improve. Adding Mendenhall to a running back group that already included Ryan Williams, William Powell and Alfonso Smith, and then later added Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor, gives the team some serious depth. Add in quarterback Carson Palmer and rookie guard Jonathan Cooper, among others, and the hope is the offense now has talent, too.
“We’ve been building it since day one and when our minicamp started and beginning of OTAs, having all the same guys here, we’ve been learning the offense and kind of growing and gelling together, so we feel good about where we are,” the 25-year-old said.
And of course, part of the reason Mendenhall feels good about Arizona is his head coach. Bruce Arians ran the Steelers’ offense from 2007-2011, and the running back’s best seasons came with his new boss calling the shots.
“That’s a big part of it, you know, having somebody you’re familiar with,” he said of the influence Arians had on him coming to Arizona. “He wanted me down here, he’s seen me work, really believes in me.
“So that meant a lot to me, and it just seemed like a good situation overall and I’m happy I’m here.”