James Conner feels ‘brand new’ with Cardinals, ready to roll with Edmonds
For much of the offseason, one of the looming questions centered around the Arizona Cardinals run game.
With 2020 starting running back Kenyan Drake off to Las Vegas, who were the Cardinals going to bring in to fill the hole he left behind?
On Tuesday, we finally got our answer with the signing of former Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner to a one-year deal.
While it may appear as a bit of a culture shock for Conner, having played collegiately and professionally in Pittsburgh for the past eight seasons, the change is more than welcome for the 25-year-old.
“I feel brand new. I’m excited for this opportunity,” Conner said via Zoom. “It’s definitely a change in scenery for me, been in Pittsburgh eight years, and I just felt I was learning so many lessons and that time in Pittsburgh was just prepping me for where I am right now in my life and this journey.
“It brought me out to AZ. I felt like I was well-equipped with just everything I’ve been through and continue to go through in this journey and it leads me to here. I’m excited to be in this red, I’m excited, I’m truly excited and it’s a blessing.”
Viewed as one of the top running backs left on the market, Conner brings with him a bruising rushing attack, sitting 6-foot-1 and 233 pounds.
In 13 games (11 starts), Conner accumulated 721 yards and six touchdowns at 4.3 yards per carry last season. He pulled down 35 of his 43 targets for 215 receiving yards. The running back could have flirted with the 1,000-yard mark if he hadn’t missed three games in 2020, two due to COVID-19 and one due to a quad injury.
Pro Football Focus graded Conner as the 39th running back last year with an overall grade of 69.4. Conner’s rating was bogged down by his pass catching (54.9), but he did rank in the top-13 in both pass (64.7) and run blocking (64.4), giving the Cardinals another capable blocker.
He’s a solid complement to Chase Edmonds and the scat back’s versatility in the offense.
“Chase doing his thing already,” Conner said. “I was watching film like, ‘Man, this dude can ball.’ I want to learn from him and be a part of it and just get to work with Chase. Ain’t no telling, I can’t predict nothing but what I can guarantee is I’m gonna come in here and work day in and day out, put my head down and grind. I’m in it for the long haul, 17-game season, I’m looking forward to it.”
“I think Chase can do it all and I believe I can do it all so just bouncing off each other, his decision-making, his speed,” Conner added. “He runs hard, too, he has that dog mentality just like I got, so we’re just gonna roll.”
Not only does Conner get a new running mate in Edmonds, he reunites with Cardinals running backs coach James Saxon. Saxon was the Steelers RB coach for the first two years of Conner’s NFL career, which includes his 2018 Pro Bowl run. The running back amassed career highs in rushing yards (973), touchdowns (12), receptions (55) and passing yards (497).
“It was awesome to link back up with coach Sax. He’s always more than a coach to me,” Conner said. “He was always about the person and just really talked about what he expected and put it up all up front. With him, we have history together and they already have a great running back room here. I’m just looking to add to it and help out where I can.”
If there’s a knock on the running back, it’s his health.
Conner has yet to play a full season, appearing in at least 14 games just once in his career (2017). Conner missed two games due to a torn MCL in 2017, three in 2018 with a high ankle sprain and six in 2019 with an AC joint injury and quad strain.
“I understand that it comes with it and it’s part of the game, but the only thing I can continue is to prep myself to be ready and attack the problems as they come,” Conner said. “They’re not even problems, they’re lessons. … Been through things before, gonna go through things in the future.
“Only thing I can do is continue to get my body ready, which I do year in and year out. They’re all challenges and I look forward to challenges.”