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When the Arizona Cardinals opted to sign running back James Conner last spring to a meager one-year deal, it was viewed by most as nothing more than an insurance policy. Insurance that then-starter Chase Edmonds would be unable to shoulder a large portion of the workload. Insurance that the club may fail to land one of the draft’s top backs in Alabama’s Najee Harris or Clemson’s Travis Etienne. Lastly, insurance that the team may need to tap into Conner’s prior days in Pittsburgh as a bell cow rusher capable of scoring touchdowns in bunches.
Fast-forward over a calendar year later, and the addition of Conner remains one of the best in recent memory for general manager Steve Keim and the Arizona Cardinals.
Every potential concern pertaining to the running back group came to fruition in 2021, and it was the Pennsylvania native who responded when his team needed him the most. Conner would go on to finish last season earning Pro Bowl honors for the first time since 2018 thanks to his absurd touchdown total that reached 18 trips to the end zone in just 15 games played. Although his yards per carry left a bit to be desired (3.7), it was the physical presence brought by Conner that was too often missing from this Arizona offense during the Kliff Kingsbury era.
Following his breakout campaign, Conner would be rewarded by Keim and company with a new three-year deal that includes a $6 million signing bonus as well as $13.5 million in guarantees. While critics may lament the financial commitment given to a running back on the other side of 25, Conner benefits from a marginal workload during the majority of his time in Pittsburgh. Through five seasons in the NFL, Conner has only eclipsed 200 carries twice (2018 and 2021), with each year being his most productive. Health permitting, this figures to be a mutually beneficial deal for both parties involved.
Thanks to Arizona’s lofty investment in Conner, the Pro Bowler would outlast his contemporary in Edmonds, who was allowed to walk as a free agent earlier this offseason. After failing to carry the workload in Arizona, Edmonds joins a crowded backfield in Miami with the likes of Raheem Mostert, Sony Michel and Myles Gaskin.
Meanwhile in the desert, Conner remains unchallenged for the role of top dog in Arizona’s running back room. Despite the Cardinals having ample opportunities to add to their stable of runners, the team has largely avoided bringing in outside competition at the position. Save for a sixth-round flyer spent on USC’s Keaontay Ingram, there is no tangible threat to steal meaningful carries from Conner this fall.
Outside of Kyler Murray’s ability to run with the football, the majority of work on the ground figures to be solely reliant on Conner and his 230-pound frame.
Thanks to his familiarity with coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, Conner is now poised and primed to enjoy an even better campaign come 2022. For evidence of this, look no further than Conner’s last seven games of the 2021 season, in which the former third-rounder tallied 341 yards through the air alone. Conner’s ability to excel between the tackles as well as in the passing game make him an unquestioned “RB1” in both professional and fantasy football.
Speaking of fantasy, Conner should also benefit from a near make-believe ensemble of skilled players at both wide receiver and tight end. The insertion of speedster Hollywood Brown should combat a defense’s ability to stack nine or more in the box. Second-round tight end Trey McBride also figures to play a part in Conner’s production, as his ability to set the edge as a blocker could help to open up lanes on the perimeter. While his top end speed remains rather modest, it’s due to these many upgrades that Conner should see his longer runs well eclipse his top marks from a season ago (45 yards).
Whether or not they realized it at the time, the Cardinals’ decision to make Conner a focal point in Kingsbury’s offense helped to completely transform their ability to sustain and eventually culminate drives with points. It’s no secret that Murray, while immensely talent, does have limitations to his game that may never be remedied. At just 5-foot-10, Murray is rarely seen under center, which makes the threat of QB sneaks all the more improbable. He, along with offensive staples Brown and Rondale Moore, are all undersized for their respected positions, while Conner remains one of the bigger starting backs in all of pro football.
Whether it’s Conner or someone else, the Cardinals would be wise to flush Murray with larger backs throughout his tenure as the team’s franchise quarterback. As effective as he was between the 20s, the now departed Edmonds would often struggle alongside Murray converting red zone trips to touchdowns. According to the folks at FantasyPros, only LA’s Austin Ekeler and Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor were more productive inside the 20 than fellow running back James Conner.
As much as fun as it is to spread out an opposing defense with 4-5 receiver sets alongside a quarterback that sits in the shotgun, at some point, a physical presence is needed in the form of a power running game. Which is why, as long as James Conner stays healthy, the Cardinals have the option to run over opposing defenders when necessary. For a team that has so many uncertainties coming into this season, the mere presence of No. 6 on their 53-man roster makes life that much easier on Sundays.
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