Why James Conner can be the star RB you’re not expecting

Draft Cardinals RB James Conner!

By: Brady Akins

Did people forget that James Conner is a good running back? Serious question.

Because as I look around the fantasy football landscape, looking at Conner’s overall RB36 projection on FantasyPros’ consensus rankings, I can’t help but feel as though maybe people did forget.

So let me remind you, James Conner is a good running back– and it wasn’t so long ago that he was a coveted fantasy football asset. Just three seasons ago, back in 2018, Conner finished as the overall RB6 in PPR leagues, ahead of other coveted players at the position like David Johnson, Melvin Gordon and Kareem Hunt.

But time passes, and the tide of public opinion shifts. Now with the Arizona Cardinals, Conner as seen as little more than an afterthought in fantasy football. Someone that broke too many hearts and destroyed too many leagues after being taken by many as a first-round player in 2019 to ever be trusted again.

Even after a bounceback 2020 season that saw Conner produce on a solid yet unspectacular level, the fantasy football managers of the world have collectively given Conner the cold shoulder, not trusting that a new team can bring him back to his 2018 ways.

But Conner’s 2020 season should give you hope that he can produce highly once again, especially with the change in scenery. 

Conner and The Cardinals 

People tend to think about the Pittsburgh Steelers, Conner’s former team, as a rough and tough throwback– the epitome of hard-nosed football with an emphasis on the trenches. 

But here’s the thing. The Steelers, without question, were anything but that in 2020. 

Pittsburgh presented an offensive line last season that struggled throughout the year– primarily in the run-blocking department, ranking 24th overall in ESPN’s run blocking win rate metric. It was difficult for the Steelers to get anything going on the ground at all with defenders barrelling down on the running backs the second the ball is snapped– which is a big part of why the Steelers finished dead last in total rushing yards and yards per attempt last season, as well as bottom five in carries.

You might think those numbers would reflect poorly on Conner, but actually, the former Pittsburgh Panther was one of the lone bright spots in the Steelers running game. Between Conner, Benny Snell, and Anthony McFarland, the Steelers had three different players with over 30 carries in 2020. And Ben Rothlisberger, who ran the ball 25 times for a ‘Lamar Jackson-esque’ 11 yards.

Not super important, but I do find that funny. 

All in all, Pittsburgh bottomed out with 3.6 yards per carry, but most of the negativity can be attributed to the Steelers’ ‘other guys’ as not a single player with over 10 carries, with the exception of Conner, averaged more than 3.4 yards per carry, weighing down the average. 

Conner, meanwhile, finished the year with 4.3 yards per carry, 721 yards, six touchdowns, on only 169 attempts. Not jaw-dropping numbers, mind you, but remember what the other running backs on the Pittsburgh roster were able to manage with a porous offensive line.

Also keep in mind that Conner’s production was not limited to just the ground game, either. The former Steeler has managed at least 34 catches in each of his past three seasons, with 35 last year for 215 yards. A down year in the receiving game relative to his 2018 standard, when Conner finished the year with 55 catches for nearly 500 yards.

That’s the thing with Conner. In a bottom-tier situation like the Steelers’ running game was in for 2020, the running back won’t wow anyone. But in good circumstances, with the right pieces around him, he can excel– just like he did in 2018.

Which is why his landing spot for 2021 should excite you.

Kenyan Drake, the Cardinals’ former starting running back, has left the building– leaving the door open for Conner to push for the starting job. If he gets it, he’ll be the top guy for an offense that ranked sixth last year in total carries, relative to the 28th run heaviest offense he played in with the Steelers.

Granted, many of those carries belong to quarterback Kyler Murray, and those aren’t going anywhere. But if Arizona relies on Conner the same way they did with Kenyan Drake, Conner will be receiving a career-high in carries, going from a career peak of 215 to the 239 Drake got in 2020.

Arizona wasn’t super fond of running backs sharing the wealth in 2020, either with Drake’s backup Chase Edmonds receiving less than half the carries the former Cardinals’ starter got. In comparison, while Conner led the Steelers in carries last season with 169, the backup Snell was right on his heels with 111.

Conner could very well become a three-down back with the Cardinals, receiving the volume he deserves in an offense that could get him back to his 2018 peak. To get prime James Conner back would mean getting a strong runner and an above-average pass catcher who could finish as an RB1.

While the path back to fantasy football stardom might be a long one that won’t pay dividends for a few years, expect Conner to at least surprise some folks in 2021 with mid-tier RB2 potential.

How the Arizona Cardinals will win the NFC West

Arizona will win the NFC West in 2021

By: Gladys Louise Tyler

The 8-8 Arizona Cardinals were in the playoff hunt for part of the 2020 season. This is true even though head coach Kliff Kingsbury was 3-9 against the NFC West, including a 0-4 record against Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams. 

The Cardinals started 2-0 in the West, only to end on a four-game losing streak in the division. 

They were 5-2 before ending the season on a 3-6 bender.

There were a few reasons for the losing streak:

  1. Wide receiver Christian Kirk looked the part of the number two wide receiver until the final eight games. In the last eight, he managed a paltry 22 receptions, 234 yards, and zero touchdowns.
  2. Quarterback Kyler Murray got injured in Week 11 against the Seattle Seahawks. After that, the offense scores 30 plus points only once the rest of the season.
  3. Linebacker Chandler Jones incurred a bicep injury in Week 5.  He ended his season with 11 total tackles and one sack. Without Jones, the Cardinals’ defense gave up close to 28 points a game on the road.

There is also the possibility that Kingsbury’s offensive prowess is over-rated, but that could be an overstatement as the offense worked for the first half of the season.

But this year the Cardinals will not only reverse their fortunes within their division, but win the NFC West outright.

At first glance, it seems like an improbable statement. The NFC West is the most competitive division in the NFL. But it is possible, and here is why:

QUARTERBACK KYLER MURRAY

Murray showed improvement until his Week 11 injury. He finished the season with a completion percentage that was 2.8% better than the previous year.  He threw for six more touchdowns and had 40 more rushing attempts.  The rushing attempts elevated his rushing touchdowns by seven compared to last year. 

WIDE RECEIVER DEANDRE HOPKINS

There is no doubt the addition of Hopkins boosted the offense. Hopkins finished the season with a career-high 71.9% catch rate.  He was targeted 160 times and had six touchdowns.

This being his second year with Murray should make the pairing that much more formidable and the duo should put up huge numbers in 2021. 

ADDITION BY SUBTRACTION

This might be the most important reason the Cardinals are set to win the division this year.  Their free agency acquisitions are more of a “win-now” mentality than let’s rebuild for the future.

Although they lost both Patrick Peterson and Kenyan Drake in free agency, they gained players (who, if they remain healthy) will help them win now.

  • Running back James Conner
  • Wide receiver AJ Green
  • Defensive end JJ Watt
  • Cornerback Malcolm Butler
  • Kicker Matt Prater

And yes, the NFC West did make some splash acquisitions. The Los Angeles Rams acquired quarterback Matthew Stafford for the win-now mentality.  The San Francisco 49ers obtained Trey Lance for the future, and well, the Seattle Seahawks attempted to upgrade their defense, with cornerbacks Ahkello Witherspoon and Pierre Desire and defensive end Aldon Smith. 

THE SCHEDULE

Depending on your “go-to” source, the Cardinals either have the fourth most difficult schedule or the 13th.  If you go by the Cbssports.com strength of schedule, the Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks will face a harder schedule than the Cardinals. 

CARDINALS 2021 SCHEDULE

WEEK 1 @ TENNESSEE TITANS

WEEK 2 v MINNESOTA VIKINGS

WEEK 3 @ JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

WEEK 4 @ LOS ANGELES RAMS

WEEK 5 v SAN FRANCISCO NINERS

WEEK 6 @ CLEVELAND BROWNS

WEEK 7 v HOUSTON TEXANS

WEEK 8 v GREEN BAY PACKERS

WEEK 9 @ SAN FRANCISCO NINERS

WEEK 10 v CAROLINA PANTHERS

WEEK 11 @ SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

WEEK 12—NOV 28 BYE WEEK

WEEK 13 @ CHICAGO  BEARS

WEEK 14 v LOS ANGELES RAMS

WEEK 15 @ DETROIT LIONS

WEEK 16 v INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

WEEK 17 @ DALLAS COWBOYS

WEEK 18 v SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

WINNING THE NFC WEST

This is Kingsbury show me year.  His team has to improve against the West foes, including the zero wins against the Rams.  The Niners will have the slew of players that were injured back; the question remains it Trey Lance or Jimmy Garoppolo under center this season.  The Seahawks are, well, the Seahawks, doing little to appease quarterback Russell Wilson’s concerns; they remain who we thought they were until proven otherwise.

The path through the NFC West appears to go through California.  If the Cardinals can break even with their NFC West rivals, there is no reason they cannot overtake the NFC West championship belt (and if there isn’t one, there should be).

 

Best Destinations For James Conner

Should The Jets Sign Conner?

By: Chandler Hyler

James Conner, former Pittsburgh Steeler running back is still looking for his next home. As we have moved past the first, second, and maybe even third waves of free agency, Conner is still on the market. While he will certainly be brought in by a franchise this year, that really is not the question; it is just which franchise will bring the former 2018 Pro Bowler in.

Conner has had an up and down career, hardly seeing the field in 2017 as the Steelers still were represented by one of the top backs in the league at the time, Le’Veon Bell. In the following year, Bell had his controversial contract dispute which led to him missing the entire season. Conner would actually be the beneficiary of this, as he was given his opportunity to shine, and he capitalized. He amassed 973 rushing yards while adding another 497 receiving yards. He would also reach the end zone 13 times in his scratching the surface debut season.

In the following years, Conner has not been as productive as he has battled though not only injuries, but a struggling offensive output in general. Since the departure of Offensive Line Coach in 2019, Mike Munchak, the Steelers run game as a unit has plunged significantly. The air-raid offense that has been led by a quarterback who is meeting father time also has not worked out Conner’s benefit.

Is Conner the 2018 version, where we saw him reach the Pro Bowl, or was that lone season a mirage in a very efficient offense? Regardless, I think it would be wise for both sides, Conner and his future team to come to terms on a one-year prove-it type deal so neither team mortgages their future on an unknown commodity. So, which teams could possibly roll the dice on Conner?

  1. Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills have been one of the few teams that are connected to possible first-round pick Najee Harris in the 2021 NFL Draft. What that tells us is that they are a team looking for a running back, and while I believe Harris is definitely the better option at this point, you could see a team like the Miami Dolphins pick him before he drops to pick number 30. With that said, This Bills team is ready to win now, as they made it to the AFC Championship game last year, but they just couldn’t surpass the juggernaut in the Kansas City Chiefs. If you subtract Quarterback Josh Allen’s rushing yards from that game, they would have totaled 41 rushing yards, and nine of those came from weapon Isiah McKenzie. If this team wants to make a late push again, and get over the hump, it would be wise for them to address the backfield. Conner hasn’t been the most reliable, but he would not need twenty touches a game in this offense. Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll could limit his touches until January football, and this could be the extra ingredient needed to keep defenses honest against Allen and crew,

2. New York Jets

As the New York Jets look to rebuild their roster under first-year head coach Robert Saleh, they will need some veteran faces inside the huddle and locker room. They are basically penciled in to select quarterback Zach Wilson out of BYU with the second overall pick in this year’s draft, and a quarterback’s best friend can be a good ground game. Conner would help take some pressure off of Wilson, and at the minimum keep the opposing defense honest. Conner could be brought in on a one-year deal, enough to come in and give him the chance to show the other 31 teams in the NFL that 2018 was not an anomaly, and helps rookie signal-caller and head coach get through their first year as a pairing.

3. Arizona Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals are a wildcard in the running for Conner, and there really aren’t any outstanding connections that I’m at least aware of. That being said, they just lost running back Kenyan Drake to the Las Vegas Raiders, so there is a chance to upgrade their backfield. Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury wants to build a potent offense, and with the weapons that they currently have at wide receiver including All-Pro Deandre Hopkins, and a lightning bolt at quarterback in Kyler Murray, Conner could add the final dimension to this offense. He is an able pass-catcher and is a tough runner. Adding pass rusher JJ Watt tells me that this team believes it is in its window right now, and adding Conner could be a valuable piece to add to their offense.

4. Miami Dolphins

Head Coach Brian Flores is building quite the team in Miami and has proven to be a great hire. As he continues to look for pieces to upgrade his offense, Conner could be a name that warrants attention. Out of every team in the running for running back Najee Harris, the Miami Dolphins seem to have the most smoke surrounding them. They actually pick in front of the Steelers as well as the Bills. If for whatever reason they are unable to land Harris, they could turn to Conner as a veteran presence to be behind second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Their defense is solid and is backed by a great secondary; their offense is the unit that needs improvement. The AFC East is a division that is clearly led by the Buffalo Bills, but the window to finish second is surely up for grabs, and if the Dolphins can add some weapons, they could push for a wild card spot in the upcoming season’s playoffs. Adding a playmaker on the outside at the top of the draft, some protection for Tua at pick number 18, and adding Conner could beef this offense up in just a few transactions.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Conner could be the last resorts for both sides in this situation. As the Bills and Dolphins, the Steelers are interested in Alabama product Najee Harris. If they are unable to land Harris and aren’t able to find a running back they like in this year’s crop, we could see the Steelers look towards the familiar face in Conner. The same goes for Conner, if he is unable to get what he wants out of the open market, he could accept the chance to stay home and try to pull one more productive season out of the black and yellow. This seems like it could be the last ride for Steelers’ current quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, bringing back Conner could be similar to the situation that brought Wide Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster back to the Steel City. One last ride for this Steelers roster, and we could see it blown up the following season.

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