Arizona Cardinals on the free agent cusp: RB James Conner
The Arizona Cardinals have decisions to make this offseason, especially when it comes down to free agency.
With more than a handful of key contributors’s contracts expiring, Arizona must choose whether to re-sign the guys they’ve come to know or test the waters for some new blood.
Before the offseason and free agency gets into full swing, Arizona Sports’ Cardinals reporter Tyler Drake and fellow editors Kevin Zimmerman, Kellan Olson and Jake Anderson share their thoughts on who might stay and who will go.
Kicking off the series is none other than running back James Conner, who in one year impacted Arizona’s offense in a big way.
Looking to improve their running game, the Cardinals let 2020 starter Kenyan Drake walk in free agency and opted for a bullying presence in Conner, 26, to pair with Chase Edmonds.
The 6-foot-1, 233 pounder arrived to the desert this past offseason on a one-year deal worth $1.75 million after spending the past four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If Conner is not back, Arizona’s backfield could look entirely different with Edmonds also a free agent this offseason. Currently, the only running back signed for 2022 is former Arizona State Sun Devil Eno Benjamin, while Jonathan Ward is an exclusive rights free agent.
Conner’s power running paired with Edmonds’ shiftiness proved to be a dynamic piece to Arizona’s offense.
Conner’s 15 rushing touchdowns trailed only Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor this season.
He also found some added touches as a pass catcher, reeling in 37 of his 39 targets for 375 yards and three touchdowns.
Conner’s 71 first downs across both rushing (53) and receiving (18) led the team in 2021.
Aside from his numbers, Conner also brought a lot of energy to the Cardinals, with numerous teammates pointing out the infectious nature it had on others. And with Conner rumbling with the rock, Edmonds was there to add the speed to Arizona’s backfield.
When healthy, the duo was tough to contend with, as Edmonds chipped in 903 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns on 159 touches.
Injury concerns are the biggest problem area when considering spending on Conner for multiple seasons.
That said, Conner was the healthiest he has ever been in his five-year career in 2021, playing in 15 regular season games.
When he missed time, his absence was surely felt.
Conner undoubtedly led the way in the scoring department, but Edmonds’ presence as a receiver out of the backfield and his 5.1 yards per carry (tied for a career high) helped keep defenses honest. And despite Conner pacing the team in rushing yards with 752 on 202 carries and getting a lot of the short-yardage work, his 3.7 average left more to be desired at times.
How much does keeping what worked intact weigh on the organization’s ultimate decision on the pair? Is it comfortable enough to let one or the other walk?
There’s also the dollars and cents of it.
After compiling that many scores, Conner should be a popular target for a lot of teams looking to improve their backfield.
Pro Football Focus projects Conner’s next contract to land in the two-year, $12.8 million range with $7.25 million guaranteed.
Drake: Outside of an out-of-the-question asking price, I don’t see how the Cardinals would be OK with letting Conner walk this offseason. The touchdown totals speak for themselves, and it was evident Arizona’s offense hit a different gear when he was on the field. Injury concerns are there, but the running back did manage to play 15 games, the most in his career.
Of the team’s free agents, Conner is high priority and should be one of the first deals done.
Likelihood of returning
Drake: High. The proof is in the pudding. When he and Edmonds are playing, the Cardinals offense is just different.
Zimmerman: Medium. If it’s between paying one of Conner or Edmonds to reasonable RB deals, it’s the latter who should be the priority. If another team throws the Brink’s truck at Edmonds, Conner may be more reasonable of a signing.
Olson: High. Conner is at the “blink and you’ll miss it” stage of a running back’s career we’ve seen in recent years where he could fade at any point, which I think will shoo away any decent offers from other teams. That combined with what I assume will be lots of interest from the Cardinals because of how freaking awesome he was last season adds up to running it back.
Anderson: High. As long as GM Steve Keim doesn’t break the bank, I don’t see how Arizona could let such a vital part of the offense in Kliff Kingsbury’s best year yet walk.