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Rashard Mendenhall is Cardinals' starter in name only

Coach Bruce Arians won't publicly acknowledge it, but there's a gradual changing of the guard occurring in the Arizona Cardinals backfield.

Veteran starter Rashard Mendenhall hasn't played more snaps than rookie "backup" Andre Ellington in any game since the end of September. Mendenhall will continue to take the field on the opening snap. After that, however, the distribution of carries will be determined by game flow.

"As we go into games, and as games unfold, different things happen," Arians said Friday, via ESPN.com, "but the plan won't change."

It's a hot-button issue in fantasy football circles because Ellington is on an unsustainable pace to become the first NFL tailback to average at least 4.0 yards per carry more than his tandem partner.

According to numbers compiled by Chase Stuart of Footballperspective.com, Bo Jackson of the 1987 Los Angeles Raiders is the only running back in history to average at least 3.0 yards per carry more than his committee partner (Hall of Famer Marcus Allen).

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The Cardinals' situation is similar to the one in Indianapolis, where the diminishing legion of Trent Richardson defenders protests that he has been charged with more carries inside the tackles. The theory posits that Donald Brown is averaging 3.03 yards per carry more than Richardson in large part because the offensive line can't keep defenders out of the backfield on the latter's tougher interior runs.

The game film and the declining roles of Mendenhall and Richardson argue in favor of Ellington and Brown simply outplaying their more celebrated counterparts.

Although Ellington's touches have increased from 5.0 per game over the first four contests to 11.6 over the last five, fantasy footballers are going to continue to wring their hands in frustration.

The Cardinals view Ellington as a "satellite" player, best utilized in open space.

Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin has referred to Ellington as a "double-edged sword." The running back has been a big-play machine, but the Cardinals believe they have to be "smart" with his workload due to concerns over his "slight build" and thin hips.

Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Jerious Norwood and Leon Washington all entered the league with similar concerns about their bodies' ability to withstand NFL pounding. The former pair went on to become durable workhorses while the latter bounced around as change-of-pace types with checkered injury histories.

The actions and comments of Arizona's braintrust suggest the Cardinals believe Ellington is closer in style and body type to Norwood and Washington. It's on the rookie to prove otherwise if his role continues to increase at Mendenhall's expense.

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