The Arizona Cardinals' running game begins and ends with power back Beanie Wells, who this year looks like he's finally ready to step into the role as lead ball carrier for the Cards. It certainly didn't look that way only a few months ago. Now the team's roster is soon to be pared down to 53, and Wells is firmly entrenched as one of the final group.
In April, the Cardinals already had Tim Hightower and then drafted Ryan Williams, a sure sign that Wells wasn't cutting it and he'd have to step up and work even harder for more carries in a crowded backfield.
In the past month, however, the landscape changed dramatically. Hightower was dealt to Washington, elevating Wells to the top of the depth chart, and then Williams suffered a torn patellar tendon in the preseason game at Green Bay and had to go on injured reserve.
Wells, entering his third NFL season, has survived, and as the final roster cutdown day looms, the Cardinals also have LaRod Stephens-Howling as a situational back and Alfonso Smith, when his hamstring is better. The club seems to like Smith's potential, but don't be surprised if the Cardinals add another running back released by another team this weekend.
The truth here is, there isn't really much to cut from running back and fullback for Arizona, as Williams' injury and the Hightower trade have lowered the number of players at those positions in training camp and one cut was already made at fullback this week.
After a decent rookie season in 2009 followed by an overly disappointing 2010 in which he rushed for only 397 yards in 13 games -- he missed the first three with a torn meniscus, another source of dismay for fans -- Wells has looked like a much tougher runner in practice and in the preseason.
"I'm very pleased with how (Wells) has taken that load and worked hard to become a better back. He's come a long way since two years ago and I respect that. Hopefully, he'll have the season that will show everybody how hard he's worked," coach Ken Whisenhunt said about Wells this week.
Beyond Wells, Stephens-Howling likely makes the 53-man squad because he offers a different look, and because he is an electrifying return specialist with proven ability to make big plays. Smith should be the last running back on the roster barring a change of heart by the coaches and a move to bring in a more experienced player. William Powell, a rookie from Kansas State, is a longshot.
At fullback, it's veteran Reagan Maui'a and rookie Anthony Sherman, both who figure to make the final roster since Sherman can be a valuable special teams player, as he has shown in the preseason. This position should take on a bigger role than in year's past as the team looks to run the ball more and we've even seen passes going to the fullbacks in short yardage situations to mix things up.
They are the only two fullbacks remaining on the current roster, and most teams keep two although Whisenhunt said recently that it would depend on how a few other things shake out. Both have looked strong in camp and preseason games which would make it difficult to pick one over the other.