When the Arizona Cardinals picked up running back James Conner in the off-season, it didn’t produce much fanfare, especially in the national media. Amid the J.J. Watts and A.J. Greens, Conner was an underrated grab from a shallow running back pool. Well, fast forward to now, and people should be starting to take notice. Through nine weeks, Conner leads the NFL in both rushing, and total touchdowns with 11 on the year, which is only one shy of his career single-season high.
Conner is the back Arizona has been crying for since David Johnson stopped being good. Projected as a ‘change of pace’ back for short-yardage situations, Conner’s role has expanded. Now, with Chase Edmonds expected to be out for some time with an ankle problem, Conner will be the first name on the depth chart. Yet, with his name already featuring prominently on the play sheet, Conner’s promotion might be a simple formality.
Running Back James Conner Will Be RB1 for the Arizona Cardinals, if He Isn’t Already
More Power to the Power Back
James Conner was brought in ostensibly to be a secondary option to Arizona’s new lead back in Chase Edmonds. The Cardinals drafted Edmonds in 2018 and finally gave him a shot at the top spot in 2021. Indeed, something had to change in the run game, after a 2020 season in which Kenyan Drake developed a habit of running sideways like a lame horse. Edmonds can be an excellent back, elusive inside and explosive in space, but he lacks size.
Enter Conner, a big bruiser with sneaky speed that can run vertically, whether there are defenders in the way or not. Arizona has two backs with differing, but complementary skill sets. The initial expectation was that Edmonds was to be the bell cow, with Conner coming in situationally. Against the Los Angeles Rams earlier in the season, the Cardinals saw the perfect execution of this dynamic; Edmonds ran for 120 yards, while Conner contributed 5o yards and two touchdowns.
Conner has more or less monopolized Arizona’s rushing scores. This is thanks, in part, to the effectiveness of Arizona’s passing game. The Cardinals are getting into the red zone quicker, where the ground game is better suited to Conner. This is not to say that Edmonds isn’t a vital part of Arizona’s offense, and indeed the pairing has been fruitful for the Cardinals this season, but Conner’s productivity in all areas of the field has seen him draw significant praise.
Conner as the Lead Back
On paper, Edmonds is RB1 and he will continue to be for the remainder of the season. However, Conner is far more than RB2. His productivity reflects that of a starter, and in the coming weeks, that is exactly what he is going to be. In the game against the San Francisco 49ers, when Edmonds’ ankle knocked him out early, Conner elevated seamlessly into the starting role. On a day that saw the Cardinals missing some key offensive pieces, he was their best offensive weapon. He made the game easy for backup quarterback Colt McCoy, and ran the ball effectively on the ground, and was a dynamic asset in the screen game.
So, Edmonds has a high-ankle sprain, which tends to be a significant, if only short-term, injury. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury essentially ruled him out of Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers before an MRI confirmed the suspicions. There is a suggestion that Edmonds could even be sent to the short-term IR during his recovery process. Edmonds is a vital part of Arizona’s offense and it will be key to get him back down the stretch, but after that performance against the Niners, the Cardinals should have complete confidence in Conner’s ability to be the lead back in his stead. Despite his apparent archetype as the short-yardage back, Conner has demonstrated both the elusiveness on the ground and the proficiency as a receiver that Edmonds boasts. Conner can do everything Edmonds can, and perhaps more.
James Conner Is Not Replacing Chase Edmonds
Simply put, Conner is not Edmonds’ replacement. Yes, they can do some of the same things, but Conner is a different player; Conner is not a plug-and-play swap for Edmonds. Arizona’s offense will lean into Conner’s abilities on the ground. Imagine not that Conner is replacing Edmonds, but rather that the two are switching places on the depth chart. Then, in that sense, Edmonds will be replaced by former ASU star Eno Benjamin.
Now, Benjamin’s start to life with the Cardinals has been less than ideal. He was inactive as a rookie and has seen limited playing time since. However, Benjamin’s skillset is a strong stand-in for Edmonds, as there is significant similarity in their games. Conner will be elevated to RB1 in Edmonds’ absence, and the Cardinals will run a ground game designed for Conner’s skills. Yet, he cannot do it alone, and it does not bode well for his durability if he is carrying the ball an obscene amount of times per game. Instead, the Cardinals should run Conner’s game as their base rushing attack, and deploy Benjamin as the ‘change-of-pace’ back, in systems usually designed for Edmonds. Reports will suggest that Arizona has lost their RB1 to injury for some weeks, but Conner can be RB1.