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Saints free agency targets: Andre Ellington may be an underrated playmaker

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One way or another, the Saints will have to add a pass-catcher at tailback. The draft is flush with options, but pursuing Andre Ellington in free agency could be the better value.

New Orleans Saints v Arizona Cardinals
GLENDALE, AZ - Arizona Cardinals tailback Andre Ellington (38) warms up before a game against the New Orleans Saints at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As I’ve said before, tailback is an area to upgrade for the New Orleans Saints in 2017. While Mark Ingram is blazing his own path through the history books, a receiving compliment to him in the backfield has not emerged. No Saints tailback averaged 30+ receiving yards for just the second time since Sean Payton was hired as head coach. It’s the first time since 2006 that none of the rostered tailbacks broke even the 20+ receiving yards mark.

So with free agency looming just three weeks away, now is as good a time as any to begin looking at players the Saints may pursue. The first player in my series of free agent profiles is Arizona Cardinals tailback Andre Ellington.

Ellington (5-foot-9, 200-pounds, 28-years old) has had a curious career arc. He was the new wave as a 2013 sixth round draft pick in Arizona, picking up 2,078 yards from scrimmage during his first two years (averaging 76.9-yards per game). Ellington added 10 pounds of muscle mass to his already maxed-out frame during his second offseason, which was too much for him to carry. He wound up missing games to turf toe and a hip pointer injury cut his 2014 season short.

That couldn’t have come at a worse time, because the Cardinals drafted the sensational David Johnson in 2015. Since entering the lineup, Johnson has been an every-down player in head coach Bruce Arians’ offense. Chris Johnson saw a brief resurgence in 2015, pushing Ellington further down the depth chart. Last year, David Johnson led all Cardinals tailbacks in snaps played (964) while Ellington ranked a very distant second (150).

So why would I single out Ellington as someone for the Saints to target?

As flush as this draft class is with pass-catching tailbacks, the Saints are sure to grab one of them. To demonstrate that depth, here are all of the guys I can name off the top of my head that Payton may consider on draft day:

  • Christian McCaffrey (Stanford)
  • Curtis Samuel (Ohio State)
  • Kareem Hunt (Toledo)
  • Wayne Gallman (Clemson)
  • Alvin Kamara (Tennessee)
  • Elijah McGuire (Louisiana-Lafeytte)
  • De’Veon Smith (Michigan)
  • Marlon Mack (South Florida)
  • Matt Dayes (North Carolina State)
  • Aaron Jones (Texas-El Paso)

Sorry about that aside. The point in signing Ellington would be to put a band-aid on the position until the draft. Ellington should come at a very low price - probably close to veteran minimum. Arizona has not indicated that they’ll be re-signing him, and considering his lack of a recent production I expect him to not get much more than that. Ellington reflected on that uncertainty in an end-of-year interview with ESPN staff writer Josh Weinfuss:

“It’s [had its] ups and downs, a lot to learn from,” Ellington said of his time with Arizona. “Me, I take all the coaching thrown my direction and try to become a better player. I felt like this year I did everything I could possibly do whenever I was called on. I made the best of my ability and we’ll see.”

By signing Ellington, the Saints would have a potentially game-changing asset at tailback with receiving ability, breakaway speed, and experience running routes out of both the backfield and split out into the slot. There’s a chance that Ellington arriving in New Orleans could result in an impact like Dion Lewis had with the New England Patriots in 2015.

But it’s more likely that Ellington’s presence would just mean the Saints don’t have to draft a tailback later on, so having that security could keep their draft plans more open-ended. They can wait to get their guy rather than take a receiving back at the earliest opportunity.

To recap: Ellington may be a low-risk, high-reward signing that can at best add a new element to the offense. At worst, it keeps the Saints from needing to reach on a draft pick. He can be released with little financial penalty. At best, Ellington turns out to be a great fit in New Orleans and seizes this opportunity to re-enter free agency next year with proven production, like Saints defensive lineman Nick Fairley is poised to do this spring. Also, Ellington could potentially keep Travaris Cadet off of our televisions.