Cardinals roster questions, wild cards: Is there enough behind James Conner?

Jul 11, 2023, 10:21 AM | Updated: Jul 19, 2023, 10:07 am

James Conner and Keaontay Ingram at practice...

James Conner and Keaontay Ingram at practice (Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

(Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

The Arizona Cardinals look a whole lot different than they did this time a year ago.

And with a reset in culture, coaching staff and front office comes a reset in the roster.

Each position group has undergone change this offseason, from quarterback to special teams specialists.

There’s still plenty of time for personnel tweaks between now and training camp next month. But until then, let’s take a deeper dive into how the Cardinals’ roster is currently constructed.

After diving into Arizona’s quarterback situation, it’s time to turn our attention to the running backs.

The Arizona Cardinals’ biggest roster questions: RB

1. Can James Conner hold up for a full season?

Of the few things we do know about the 2023 Cardinals is the fact that they plan to run the rock.

Head coach Jonathan Gannon and offensive coordinator Drew Petzing have talked about it time and time again this offseason. Offensive linemen D.J. Humphries and Will Hernandez were practically salivating when asked about the run rate during minicamp.

And given the current outlook at quarterback and likely not having Kyler Murray back under center until midseason, it’s all about controlling the clock and the tempo behind an effective run game.

Conner more than welcomes the projected workload coming his way, though he remains focused on being a team player.

“I’m just excited about everything we’re building right now,” Conner said during organized team activities earlier in June. “We’re just laying our foundation and I’m loving the run so far and just the offense as a whole and what we’re building and what we’re trying to do. It’s real exciting.”

Now, being the team’s lead back is nothing new for Conner, who has taken on that role in both Arizona and Pittsburgh throughout most of his NFL career.

But given where Petzing is coming from — the run-heavy Cleveland Browns — it’s a very real possibility Conner surpasses his career mark of 215 carries.

Much like how the Cardinals are shaping up to look this year, the Browns entered last season with a backup option at quarterback and a trusted runner.

With Cleveland hitching their offensive wagon to Nick Chubb, the RB finished the season third in the NFL in carries (302) and rushing yards (1,525). He led the league in running plays of at least 20 yards (13) and ended up tied for fifth in touchdowns scored (12).

Chubb also reeled in a pass here and there, catching 27 balls for 239 yards and a score.

That same power running game is what Petzing wants to emulate in the desert. Conner is the catalyst in achieving that.

He just has to stay healthy.

Being the bruising running back that he is, Conner has been susceptible to injury across his six NFL seasons, appearing in 15 games just once.

His second year in the Valley was no different, with Conner playing in 13 contests due to ankle and rib issues.

When on the field, though, Conner has proven he can be the guy. He first showed that as a Steeler in 2018 behind 973 yards and 12 touchdowns on 215 carries.

Then came 2021 in Arizona, where Conner racked up 15 scores on the ground to go along with 752 yards on 202 carries.

The biggest similarity between the two? The 200-plus carries the running back registered.

Volume is Conner’s friend. He should see plenty of it in Arizona’s new offense.

2. How different will the RBs room look post-training camp?

Corey Clement during OTAs

Arizona’s depth chart at RB takes quite a dip after Conner, with Keaontay Ingram, Corey Clement, Ty’Son Williams and Emari Demercado rounding out the room.

As we saw last season in Arizona and Cleveland, both teams entered the season with five running backs apiece.

That is some serious depth and could be a precursor to what we might see in 2023.

Outside of Conner, Ingram and Clement appear to have roles, whether that’s offensively or on special teams. Beyond those names, though, it gets a whole lot murkier.

What Ingram and Clement show in training camp could be the deciding factors in revamping the room or not late in the offseason.

The wild Card

Keaontay Ingram during OTAs

Conner is the first punch of the ground game. That is a given.

As for the second punch, the leader in the clubhouse so far is Ingram.

Appearing in 13% of Arizona’s available offensive snaps as a rookie last season (104), Ingram carried the rock 27 times for 60 yards and a touchdown.

With how things are shaping up, he should get much more run in 2023.

Just take a look back at the Browns model. While Chubb was far and away the main fixture in the running game, he was spelled periodically by change-of-pace back Kareem Hunt.

The powerful, yet shifty Hunt saw less than half of the touches (123) Chubb received in 2023, though still managed to rack up 468 yards and three scores on the ground. He also reeled in 35 receptions for 210 yards and a touchdown.

Ingram (6-foot-0, 215 pounds) fits that same mold as Hunt (5-foot-11, 216) and could likely see a similar split in touches with the potential to do more as a pass catcher.

Boxes are going to be stacked against this 2023 Cardinals squad right out the gate. Arizona is going to need another power back to help move the chains on the ground when Conner needs a spell while providing another option in the receiving game.

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Cardinals roster questions, wild cards: Is there enough behind James Conner?