TEMPE, Ariz. -- Somewhere in Andre Ellington’s Arizona home is a list of goals.
He won’t say where it is or what’s on it, but leading into Week 17, the Cardinals rookie running back is “doing pretty good.” Just 19 yards from becoming Arizona’s first rookie to hit 1,000 all-purpose yards since Anquan Boldin did it in 2003 is proof.
But to Ellington, his rookie year hasn’t been a complete success.
“It was alright,” Ellington said. “Just alright because [there’s] a lot that I didn’t do. But our goal is to make it to the playoffs and if we make it to the playoffs and actually proceed in that direction, then I can say my rookie season was pretty good. But overall, I felt like it was alright.”
Becoming a major cog in an offense that’s a win and a New Orleans Saints loss away from making the playoffs is better than an alright rookie season, especially considering where Ellington started out. A hamstring injury at the NFL scouting combine last February limited his productivity in front of the entire league, but it also disrupted his schedule of tryouts. Teams wanted to see him run, but he simply couldn’t.
So teams passed on the speedster out of Clemson. Arizona took a chance on him in the sixth round, and the reward far outweighs the risk.
“Absolutely, he was a steal,” Cardinals running backs coach Stump Mitchell said. “What we did do, we saw a lot of what Andre could do on tape. He already put his body of work on tape. It wasn’t as if we were going to ask him to do something that he had not done before. We were just hoping he would be able to duplicate some of the things he had done in college.”
If you ask his college coach, Ellington hasn’t even touched his potential.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he told every scout and coach who made the trip to South Carolina that Ellington was as good as Swinney’s been around – and that includes C.J. Spiller. It wasn’t just Ellington’s breakaway speed that Swinney would rave about. It was his “blue-collar work ethic” or just his personality, telling everyone that Ellington was never hard to deal with.
Ellington was brought along slowly by Arizona coach Bruce Arians, who said early in the season that Ellington wasn’t strong enough to be an every-down back. Maybe that was Arians’ way of protecting Ellington and letting him adapt to life in the NFL, because Swinney strapped Clemson to Ellington’s back two years ago and let him carry the Tigers.
“We rode him like a mule last year and the year before,” Swinney said. “People thought if he wasn’t an every-down guy, he’s an injury-prone guy. There’s this perception of him that wasn’t accurate, for whatever reason. He didn’t miss many games at all. Missed maybe one as a junior and senior.”
Swinney also used Ellington as a kick returner, a position he could inherit if Arizona doesn’t re-sign Javier Arenas. Ellington could also become the team’s feature back if Rashard Mendenhall isn’t re-signed, either, and Swinney said he’s more than capable of handling the load.
“He’s plenty big enough,” Swinney said. “He’s a very elusive guy. He doesn’t take a lot of shots. He’s very smart in how he runs.
“He has a knack for avoiding big hits but always falling forward and always getting yards. He’s a hard guy to tackle. He’s elusive and shifty and has that great first step. When he was here he didn’t take a lot of blowup-type shots. He would always find some grass falling forward.”
That’s welcoming news to Cardinals fans who jumped on the Ellington bandwagon early in the season. They questioned why Ellington wasn’t playing more, but limiting his carries was by design. He still managed to rush for 622 yards and three touchdowns on 109 carries, and catch 36 passes for 359 yards and a touchdown.
Yet, there was something about Ellington that can’t be taught and he showed it throughout the season, especially on his 80-yard run against Atlanta, which is still holding up as the longest run by a rookie this season.
“There are those guys who can make people miss and those guys who can’t,” Mitchell said. “It’s harder to teach them to. For whatever reason, they don’t have that extra sense to feel people coming. It’s as if Andre has eyes in the back of his head.”
Mitchell is seeing what 31 other teams didn’t. This year was spent proving the other teams wrong for letting Ellington slip to the sixth round. But he won’t boast about it or get in your face.
Ellington may not even talk about it.
“He’s very quiet,” Swinney said. “He doesn’t say anything. Very reserved. He’s got a great personality when you get to know him. Just really reserved and business like. Just focused on what he’s got to do.”