Cardinals don't know who will run it, but they know they want to run it in 2020

Kenyan Drake played in just eight games with the Cardinals last season but led the team with 643 rushing yards. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury attended Super Bowl LIV inside Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, and undoubtedly took note of how a dynamic run game can carry a team to the Lombardi Trophy.

The Kansas City Chiefs ran for 129 yards in the Super Bowl while the San Francisco 49ers ran for 141. Neither of their quarterbacks threw for 300.

Kingsbury has long been a believer that a sturdy run game is necessary for any offense -- including one that's labeled "Air Raid." During his rookie season as an NFL head coach, Kingsbury showed he was more than willing to run the ball. The Cardinals set a franchise record in 2019 with 5.03 yards per carry. They finished the season averaging 124.4 yards per game on the ground and ranked 10th in the NFL with 1,990 rushing yards.

But it took some time for them to figure out their run game, and with free agency about a month away, Arizona's running back situation heading into 2020 is filled with questions and uncertainty.

Last season, the Cardinals were led in rushing by Kenyan Drake (643 yards), who played in just eight games after being traded to the team midseason from the Miami Dolphins. Quarterback Kyler Murray (544) was next, followed by former fantasy stud David Johnson (345) -- who didn't see more than five carries in a game following a Week 6 win over the Atlanta Falcons -- and Chase Edmonds (303), who missed six games overall due to injury.

The more the Cardinals ran the ball, the better they seemed to do. As last season wound down, Murray remarked a few times about the difference in the offense from September to December, especially in the run game. Note:

  • In September, Arizona ran for 368 yards and two touchdowns on 79 carries while going 0-4.

  • In December, it ran for 695 yards and eight touchdowns on 135 carries while going 2-3.

"I'd like to continue to be a physical run team," Kingsbury said. "I think when you can mix in the quarterback having his 40, 50 [yards] -- we're never going to run him 20, 25 times -- but guys are playing at a physical level on the perimeter, up front, and it's paying off."

But who will run it moving forward?

Drake, who played out the final year of his rookie deal, was the team's most reliable runner at season's end, but his return is far from certain.

When he arrived the week of the Cardinals' Thursday night game against the Niners on Halloween, Drake appeared to join a crowded running back room. But Edmonds' health minimized his role and Johnson's playing time decreased to the point that he played 20 or fewer snaps in Weeks 13-16 before being benched in Week 17 at the Rams.

Johnson's future is somewhat in doubt. His $10.2 million salary for 2020 is fully guaranteed, making a release unlikely. However, a trade could be an option.

After the season, Kingsbury said of the team's plan for Johnson and whether the Cardinals can have a three-man running back room: "That remains to be seen."

"I didn't do a great job of it this year, but Kenyan got hot, and we wanted to give him a chance to be the guy and felt like he played his best football when he was the guy and got the majority of the carries," Kingsbury said. "I've had three in college, and I know it's a different game, but it's just a matter of finding ways to use them."

Drake could command major money on the open market, which the Cardinals might not be willing to pay because of their experience giving Johnson almost $32 million guaranteed.

"That's another discussion we'll have," Kingsbury said of Drake. "I thought he made big steps. I think with an entire offseason in our system, he has a chance to really, really take off. We have to sit down with personnel and kind of see where we're at with those three guys."