© 2023 BSN LIVE, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
As the Cardinals watched their once prized rusher Kenyan Drake sign his bloated two-year contract with the Las Vegas Raiders last spring, it was evident that changes were coming for the Arizona backfield. The Cardinals had previously shipped a fifth-round pick to Miami for Drake, but the former Alabama product fell out of favor with the club during the 2020 season.
With Drake gone and only the undersized Chase Edmonds in house, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was suddenly tasked with adding some much-needed muscle to Arizona’s run game. Even with Drake in the fold, the Cardinals struggled mightily in last season to convert short-yardage opportunities. Coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense was routinely stuffed on both goal-line and fourth-down situations, limited by a lack of size and strength up the middle.
Assuming that Keim had learned his lesson when paying big money to free agent rushers, it was obvious to many that the Cardinals would wisely turn to the upcoming NFL Draft for a younger, cheaper option. Combine that with the likes of Clemson’s Travis Etienne openly campaigning for the Cardinals to draft him and it made all the sense in the world to pair Edmonds with a rookie rusher.
“I’m not even going to lie to you,” Etienne famously said. “My dream scenario is the Cardinals at 16.”
When early April rolled around, and Arizona’s backfield was still sitting at status quo, it became all too clear what Keim had up his sleeve.
Or so we all thought.
On April 13, just two weeks away from the NFL Draft, the Cardinals agreed to terms with free-agent running back James Conner on a modest one-year, $1.75 million contract ($1.25 million fully guaranteed). The then 25-year-old Conner had spent his entire career as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, earning Pro Bowl honors in 2018.
A former third-round pick out of the University of Pittsburgh, Conner had famously overthrown All-Pro Le’Veon Bell following the latter’s messy contract dispute with the ultra-conservative Steelers. Like many running backs, however, Conner was eventually hampered by injuries that resulted in the Pittsburgh native missing a combined nine starts in three years. As a result, like Drake with the Cardinals, Conner was in search of a new home for the first time in his young life.
The desert was an attractive destination for Conner in part because of his ability to reunite with former-Steelers, now-Cardinals running backs coach James Saxon. The pair worked together in Pittsburgh during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the latter in which Conner netted nearly 1,500 total yards from scrimmage along with 13 touchdowns.
The addition for the Cardinals, at the time, was largely viewed as insurance, assuming Keim and company were unable to secure their prized rusher in the draft. Even with Edmonds and Conner, many insiders projected the Cardinals adding the aforementioned Etienne or Alabama’s Najee Harris. It seemed all but predetermined for the Cardinals to take a marquee name such as Harris to grow, long-term with the likes of Kyler Murray in Arizona.
Coincidentally, once the dust had settled followed the three-day draft, it was Harris who was en route to the Steel City as the newest member of the Steelers. The Cardinals, to the surprise of many, opted against drafting a running back with any of their six selections. That meant, for better or worse, Arizona planned to roll into this pivotal 2021 season with a backfield tandem of Chase Edmonds and James Conner.
Even with Pro Bowl accolades attached to his name, Conner understood coming into the year that whomever was viewed as RB1 didn’t mean much. The Cardinals had been famously burned during Keim’s tenure by becoming overly dependent on one back rather than utilizing a committee of quality options. Those experiences likely shaped Keim’s and Kingsbury’s approach to begin the season.
“Coach told us both we gotta be unselfish guys, both talented players,” Conner said before the season when referencing his and Edmonds’ role. “We’re going to play a lot this year and we’ll both make a lot of plays.”
Fast forward 10 weeks into the season and Conner has certainly held up his end of the bargain. At the writing of this article, the former Steeler led the NFL with 12 touchdowns along with 629 yards of offense. He is currently on pace for a ridiculous 22 touchdowns which would put him in play for the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award.
Not bad for an afterthought who is currently making near the veteran’s minimum.
This elite production by Conner was made all the more necessary following a Week-9 hip injury to Edmonds, who has subsequently landed on injured reserve. While concerns abound that Conner’s injury history could once again rear its ugly head, the team has wisely utilized the likes of Eno Benjamin to ease his usage until Edmonds returns. Kingsbury remains committed to let the former Steeler run wild, especially in the fourth quarter.
Who can blame him?
Conner’s aggressive, between-the-tackles rushing style has been a breath of fresh air for the once finesse Cardinal offense. His powerful 6-feet-1, 233-pound frame is exactly what the doctor ordered for an Arizona team that no longer frets at the goal line. After a dismal showing last season, the Cardinals have transformed into one of the most efficient red-zone teams in all of football thanks to their power runner. Conner’s ability to plow through defensive linemen and linebackers alike routinely has opposing defensive coordinators loading the box in fear.
Look no further for proof than Conner’s 173-yard destruction of division rival San Francisco in Week 9. The 49ers continually tried and failed in their attempts to corral the former Steeler. James Conner finished the afternoon with three touchdowns while being pubbed for “player of the week” honors.
Conner has been a stabilizing presence for the Cardinals both on and off the field. Like so many of Keim’s offseason additions, he remains passionate for the game and what it has provided him. A cancer survivor who was once told he had “a week to live“, the former ACC Player of the Year continues to make the most of every opportunity that comes his way. Conner’s emotional impact has been invaluable for the Cardinals. He is routinely seen revving up his teammates on the sidelines.
That emotion has also translated into a violent running style that has again vaulted James Conner among the elite running backs in pro football. After already shattering preseason projections that capped his season at 600 yards rushing and four touchdowns, Conner has reinforced Keim’s belief that he could outpace the many rookie backs to whom he was so often compared. While Harris remains productive in Pittsburgh, his four touchdowns pale in comparison to the historic pace currently set by Conner. Travis Etienne, unfortunately suffered a season-ending foot injury with Jacksonville that knocked him out of his rookie campaign.
Then there’s Conner, who seemingly rewards the Cardinals every week for their confidence that he could once again become a dominant player. With Super Bowl aspirations renewed in the desert, this Arizona club has a proven commodity lined up in the backfield capable of fueling a January postseason run.
Get Arizona's Best Sports Content In Your Inbox!
Become a smarter Arizona sports fan with the latest game recaps, analysis and exclusive content from PHNX's writers and podcasters!
Just drop your email below!