GLENDALE, Ariz. — One must go all the way back to Week 1 of last season to find a time when Andre Ellington occupied the top spot on the Cardinals’ running back depth chart.
It’s easy to forget.
Ellington was the lead dog when the Cardinals opened up against the Saints, but a knee injury forced him out of the lineup. From there, Chris Johnson became the team’s No. 1 runner and then, when he got hurt, David Johnson took the baton.
Now, both the Johnsons are the team’s top two backs, with David being one and Chris two, and Ellington third but in some ways, forgotten.
While not necessarily the talk of training camp, Ellington’s performance has been a sight for sore eyes. Healthy, he has looked more like the player he was as a rookie in 2013, the one who was seen as the centerpiece of the offense.
Healthy, he can add a speed dimension that the offense, for all of its strengths, could use a little more of.
Ellington’s ability was on display in the Cardinals’ preseason opener Friday, as he gained 41 yards on three carries in a 31-10 loss to the Oakland Raiders. His big run, a 35-yard jaunt that saw him quickly get through the line before breaking into the open field, eventually set up his final carry, a five-yard touchdown run.
He looked explosive.
“Yes he did,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said, with a smile. “It’s nice to see him back on two feet and know how explosive he is.”
Arians was not the only one to notice, as QB Carson Palmer, when talking about the team’s depth at running back, made sure to single Ellington out.
“But to see Dre really pull away and explode and see that explosiveness that he’s been struggling with for so long with the foot injury that he’s had and the knee injury he had last year,” he said. “Just to see him kind of bounce one and see that speed again was good.”
Ellington has battled all sorts of different injuries in his brief career. Last year he was sidelined by a PCL injury, but in other seasons he has battled the likes of turf toe and a sports hernia.
But right now, he’s healthy again, and knowing his coach is pleased makes him happy.
“It made me feel good,” he said. “My job is to work my tail off every day and keep a smile on coach’s face like that. As long as I’m doing that, I know everything is good.”
Ellington said it’s been a while since he was 100 percent healthy, as even when he came back and played down the stretch last season he was still dealing with some hampering issues. He said he’s been able to get back into a rhythm, and that’s a nice feeling.
Last season, Ellington tallied 289 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 45 carries, which was the lowest total in any of his first three NFL seasons. He also caught just 15 passes.
Healthy or not, though, barring an injury to either of the top two backs, it would seem Ellington’s role is not likely to grow much this season. Perhaps that would be ideal for the smaller player, whose frame may not be able to withstand the beating of a No. 1 running back.
Ellington said all he can do is play well and leave the decisions regarding snaps to the coaches, and when approached with the idea of maybe the former Clemson Tiger being suited for a smaller role, Arians said he hopes his player would want to be the starter and let him judge how many carries he gets.
“But I know this, every time he touches it it’s got potential to go to the house,” he added.
The way the former sixth-round pick sees it, his current role is to spell the team’s top two running backs, and when his number is called, to make the most of whatever opportunities he gets.
For an idea of what kind of impact he can make in that role, look back to last year’s game in Seattle and his victory-clinching touchdown run.
Regardless of all the struggles he’s been through, that fact remains. Ellington’s star may have fallen some since his breakout rookie season in 2013, when he notched 1,023 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns, but it has not faded completely.
And at 27 years of age, we still have not seen all he can be.
“Even my rookie year, it was just a little taste,” he said. “Hopefully I’m just going to keep continue to work hard so I can be out there all season and see what I can do, because I’m curious myself.”