In a somewhat surprising move, Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green has decided to elevate Emmitt Smith to starting running back on the depth chart.
Marcel Shipp, who had been the starter, has been demoted to No. 2. The Cardinals are completing their offseason workouts with a final practice Thursday morning.
Green concluded the practice by announcing to the team the starting lineup heading into training camp Aug. 1. Notable in their absence were tackle L.J. Shelton, who was demoted three weeks ago, and safety Dexter Jackson, whose back injury has kept him out of almost all offseason practices.
Leonard Davis replaces Shelton at tackle with Reggie Wells in Davis’ old left guard spot. Quentin Harris is Jackson’s replacement.
Third-round pick Darnell Dockett is also a starter at defensive tackle.
But it was the elevation of Smith that caught the attention.
“I think now we are comiittted to three wide receivers — remember when we made our (first) starting lineup in March we did not have (rookie) Larry Fitzgerald we did not know what our offensive system would be,” Green said after the workout. “Those three guys (Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Bryant Johnson) should be on the field at one time. That means we switch gears to what we will be as our primary offensive attack and that’s suits the style ... of Emmitt Smith.”
Smith has not started a game since the fifth game of the 2003 season, when he gained minus-1 yard on six carries against his former team in Dallas and fractured his scapula. The injury kept him out six games and Shipp ended up keeping the starting job when Smith returned.
The depth chart stayed the same into the offseason, once Green was hired and after Smith decided to return to play another year.
Smith expressed surprise at the move. So too did Shipp, who was clearly blindsided by the decision. Both said they knew a lot could happen by the end of training camp, and Smith said no matter what happened, he could live with the decision.
Just last week, Smith told the Tribune he was prepared to be a backup.
“My pride and ego are not about the job decisions I have to make,” Smith said then. “I understand what the team requires and Marcel Shipp is definitely the guy to do it.
“I signed up to be the starter but I understand what my role is. He’s No. 1 and I am No. 2.”
Smith gained just 256 yards rushing last season, averaging 2.8 yards a carry. Shipp had 830 yards and gained 3.6 yards a rush. Earlier in the offseason, even No. 3 back Josh Scobey was getting more reps than Smith.
Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, is in the final year of a two-year, $7.5 million contract.