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How James Conner Fits With The Arizona Cardinals

After hosting James Conner for a visit on Monday, the Arizona Cardinals announced the signing of the former Pittsburgh Steelers star on Tuesday. One of the best free agents still available after the initial free agency period, we assess James Conner’s fit with the Arizona Cardinals and what the veteran running back can offer in the desert.

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How Will the Arizona Cardinals Use James Conner?

James Conner’s football career so far begins and ends in Pittsburgh. A Pennsylvania native, Conner committed to the University of Pittsburgh, where he played four years for the Panthers. He was drafted by the hometown Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Current Cardinals running backs coach James Saxon coached Conner with the Steelers.

Sitting behind Le’Veon Bell his rookie season, Conner’s sophomore campaign saw him become Pittsburgh’s starting back after Bell sat out the year over a contract dispute. In a breakout year, Conner ran for almost 1000 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. He also registered 497 receiving yards on 55 receptions. He was named a starter for the AFC in the 2018 Pro Bowl.

James Conner: Scouting Report

Conner headed into the first free agency of his career having been the featured running back for the past three seasons in Pittsburgh. He is a starting-caliber player in the NFL, with an ability that bemoans his availability this late in free agency. Standing at 6’1″ and weighing in at 233lb, he is a bigger, powerful option at running back. He is a versatile runner, comfortable in power schemes, running between the tackles or out in open space. He isn’t a smasher like a true power back. Yet, he does have the sturdiness to run over some defenders and break tackles. In space, he has good short-area quickness and elusiveness, best demonstrated in various screens. This also nods towards his ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

The biggest knock on Conner has been and will continue to be, his health. Conner has sustained a whole host of other injuries, in addition to his well-publicized diagnosis with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2015. His cancer was discovered during rehab for a torn MCL sustained in Pitt’s season opener in 2015. An MCL injury also saw Conner miss the end of his rookie season in the NFL. He has suffered from ankle and lower leg problems, as well as a significant shoulder injury that was a recurring issue throughout the 2019 season. Subsequently, Conner has never completed a full 16 games in an NFL season.

Chase Edmonds

The Cardinals’ hierarchy has been confident about the team’s direction at running back heading into 2021. After flashing potential in 2020, Chase Edmonds showed the team enough to make him the number one running back. Although there were conversations about his return, Kenyan Drake was ultimately allowed to leave, clearing the way for Edmonds in the upcoming season.

Chase Edmonds has the potential and ability worthy of a starting spot on an NFL team. Edmonds featured largely as a ‘change-of-pace’ back, given that Drake was the starter in 2020. This did allow him to demonstrate his ability as a pass-catcher, both on the line of scrimmage and out of the backfield. He is still a shifty and dynamic runner. He exemplifies the skillset of a smaller back, excelling in open field situations but with the sharpness to be effective in vertical running schemes. However he is not a strong option in short-yardage scenarios, lacking the size and power to take on defensive linemen and linebackers head-on.

James Conner’s Fit in Arizona

James Conner is the prototype for a player to pair with a talent like Chase Edmonds. Smaller backs like Eno Benjamin currently populate the Cardinals’ running back room. Therefore, the team is in desperate need of a bigger, more powerful back to offer a different skill set. A player like Conner will help to correct the issues the Cardinals’ run game had in 2020; Kenyan Drake often ran laterally too often, lacking vertical aggression. Conner has the three-down ability and thus it is unjust to suggest that he is simply a short yardage back. However, Conner is a great fit because the Cardinals need a bigger running back capable of converting these situations. He offers the Cardinals a power option as well as providing a versatility that suits the fluidity of Kliff Kingsbury’s team.

Furthermore, signing Conner allows the front office some flexibility when it comes to the NFL Draft. With a clear need at running back, the Cardinals have been linked with several of the draft’s top players. Notably, UNC duo Michael Carter and Javonte Williams have been linked. These are players that compliment Edmonds as bigger, more powerful archetypes. Acquiring Conner gives the team the option to use their top picks elsewhere, given that they only have two in the first four rounds, and then maybe pick up another back in the later rounds. Eno Benjamin, who the Cardinals think can be an NFL-level talent, was a later-round pick in 2020.

James Conner is Perfect for Arizona Cardinals

After their initial meeting, the Cardinals couldn’t let a player of Conner’s quality leave the building. Signing Conner fills a schematic need for the team, allowing flexibility in the upcoming draft and takes some of the pressure of Chase Edmonds as he heads into his first year as a starter. There are some injury concerns, but Conner is not expected to be a featured back. As one of the best free agents still on the market, he seems like a perfect signing.

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