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Making the Leap, No. 3: Cardinals RB Andre Ellington

Around The League will profile the top 25 players we see Making the Leap in 2014. No. 3 on the list: Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington.

Why Ellington is on the list

Cardinals fans spent most of the 2013 season loudly yearning to see Ellington utilized more in the run game.

Coach Bruce Arians professed reluctance to heap a workload on his rookie running back, citing a slight frame. He compared Ellington to "Fast Willie" Parker, whose career was shortened due to a heavy burden.

Arians teased fans by suggesting a raised workload several times. While Ellington did see an uptick in production as the season progressed, it was never near the 20 touches proposed last November.

Then, in a monumental reversal this offseason, Arians said the Cardinals planned to sculpt their ground game in Ellington's image. While the 30 touches suggested is hyperbole, it's easy to see why Arians has finally come around.

Watching Ellington on Game Rewind, his style pops off the screen. He possesses uncanny shiftiness at the point of contact, great balance in the hole, tackle-breaking ability, good speed and can pop off at any moment.

Exhibit A:

In limited time (just 118 carries) Ellington put up a gaudy 5.5 yards per carry -- the highest average for running backs with more than 100 totes. He had eight runs of 20-plus-yards, tied with the likes of Adrian Peterson and DeMarco Murray, who had substantially more carries.

Big plays were Ellington's forte thanks to an ability to shed tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, Ellington earned a league-qualifying high of 47.9 percent of his yards on 15-plus yard runs due to his elusiveness and ability to create yards after contact.

The Cardinals back is not afraid of contact, though his build might suggest otherwise. He takes on tacklers when necessary and doesn't dance in holes trying to hit a home run every play.

His ankle-breaking change of direction is his best attribute. The video to the right shows his skill to plant and move, leaving a tackler grasping air. In Week 4 he put a clown suit on Pro Bowl corner Darrelle Revis.

Hold on.

You should probably go back and watch that video again. I'll wait....

Had your fill yet? OK, let's move forward.

Ellington is perhaps an even more dangerous weapon in the passing game. His ability to split wide is something Arians often utilized, especially down the stretch when the Cardinals' offense got rolling. Ellington is a menace out of the backfield for linebackers trying to track him, and he showed a better understanding of route-running as the season progressed.

Arians has suggested the Cardinals will utilize more two-back sets in 2014, presumably with Ellington teaming up with Jonathan Dwyer or Stepfan Taylor. This should allow the Cardinals to be more dangerous out of the backfield while creating mismatches with Ellington in the pass game.

After a rookie season that saw him put on a show while being saddled behind now-noted author Rashard Mendenhall, Ellington is primed to leap into the upper echelon of dynamic runners.

Obstacles

Ellington put on 10 pounds in the offseason in anticipation of the heavier workload, but injuries are always a concern. He had toe and ankle surgeries in college, suffered a concussion last offseason, missed a game in 2013 with an injured knee and battled a thigh injury late last season. Still, his build is not unlike that of Chris Johnson and Jamaal Charles, who have proven to be durable.

Questions remain about his ability to protect the passer. With Arians preferring to send him on routes, Ellington wasn't asked to stay in and protect much -- only 21 times did he pass-block for the quarterback, per Pro Football Focus. As an everyday starter he'll have to show a willingness and ability to take on those duties.

Also, quit with the dropped passes, Andre!

Expectations for 2014

The world wanted more Andre Ellington, and we are going to get more Andre Ellington. What a joy it will be to watch more defensive backs look foolish trying to wrangle the elusive back.

An improved offensive line (the Cardinals were one of the worst units in football last season) should provide more opportunities for Ellington to burst into the secondary where he can gallop in open grass.

How big of a workload is Arians willing to heap on the running back? While the coach suggested Ellington could take 30 carries if needed, Arians is a self-admitted liar. Still, an uptick to 220 to 230 carries (an average of 14 carries per game) and 45 to 55 catches (3.5 per game) would be a massive increase in the runner's workload.

Even if his flamboyant 5.5 yards-per-carry average dips due to the boosted burden, an 1,100-yard rushing season and 550-yard receiving season splashed with highlight-reel plays is not unattainable and would be a monumental boon for the Cardinals' pass-first offense.

In the latest "Around The League Podcast" the guys offer up their personal top 10 lists leading up to the "Top 100" finale.

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