With the draft and its immediate aftermath done, it’s time to kick off our annual trip through the league to unearth the Secret Superstars. The guys we’re looking for are the underutilized up-and-comers, the vets who’ve toiled away and finally had something of a breakthrough, and the rest of the non-household names who might deserve a shot at more snaps in the coming year.
As a lead-in to this series, PFF’s Gordon McGuinness recently took a look back through the last three years of Secret Superstars (2011, 2012, 2013) with an eye toward hits and misses. Our first team up, the Arizona Cardinals, found their group marked with a positive in Dan Williams, but a couple of misses as well in David Carter and Bobby Massie. Carter has clearly not panned out, but the 2013 selection, Massie, still has a chance if he ever gets another opportunity.
The Cardinals have done a great job of finding players on the defensive side of the ball either through draft picks or free agency — last year, for example, in drafting Tyrann Mathieu and signing John Abraham. They’ve struggled, however, in finding offensive talent, but in 2013 they hit big on their sixth-round rookie and Secret Superstar Andre Ellington.
Ability as a Runner
In the first half of the season, Arizona was reluctant to use Ellington as runner, he was mainly brought in as the third-down, pass-catching back, but he showed glimpses that he had the ability to be more than that. In 28 carries Ellington averaged over 6 yards with a +3.4 grade and, in Week 8 with Rashard Mendenhall unable to play, the rookie found his first chance to be the featured back. The result was 154 yards on 15 carries against the Atlanta Falcons. After the breakout game, the Cardinals gave him a bigger role as a runner and he did not disappoint.
In the second half of the season, Ellington still saw around 30 snaps a game, but the team was more inclined to let him run the ball. In that stretch his per-game average was 11.25 attempts and 4.3 yards per carry and, even though he’s a smaller back, the increased workload didn’t affect his ability to generate yards after contact. Only Donald Brown had more yards after contact per carry (over 100 carries) than Ellington’s 3.15 and his 62.2 Elusive Rating was fifth-best in the league, just below Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch.
Despite the poor display of blocking in front of him (The Cardinals’ 2013 offensive line ranked 32nd), Ellington managed to prove himself more than just a pass-catcher. With improved personnel on the offensive line, Ellington could benefit, especially if he maintains the ability to avoid tackles and gain yards after contact.
Through the Air
Ellington has already built a reputation that he can be one of the best third-down backs in the NFL. In 2013, he came in with the 11th-highest receiving grade for a running back (built on 39 receptions and a 9.5 yards per catch average) and showed the ability to line up split wide as well — 25 of his 57 targets came from WR routes. However, Ellington was not without issues as a pass catcher last season, the main worry being his six dropped passes that led to a Drop Rate of 13.33.
Becoming the Top Back
The only thing that held Ellington back in 2013 was the lack of chances he received early on. After playing less than 40% of the Cardinals snaps while sharing time with Mendenhall at the outset, Ellington still managed to land among the Top 10 running backs in overall grade (+14.7).
In 2014 it looks like Ellington will be the lead back for Cardinals with the two big questions being: how many snaps will the team be willing to give him? …and will he be able to be continue his success on more touches or would ultimately be more valuable as a role player capable of taking any play to the house? In 2013, Ellington had 47.9% of his yards on runs over 15+ yards, a Breakaway Percentage that led the league.
It will be interesting to see if Ellington can build upon his successful rookie season and, in turn, become another top back that is traditionally undersized but be massively successful in the modern NFL. It is highly possible that 2013 was just a glimpse of another late-round success at the running back spot to hit the NFL.
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