Why did the Cardinals sign James Conner? Team’s backfield needs, change of scenery spurred RB’s bounce-back year

The Cardinals drew a lot of attention for the players they brought in during 2021 NFL free agency. They landed one of the biggest prizes in J.J. Watt, and they added A.J. Green and Rodney Hudson (via trade) to bolster their offense.

A signing they made later in the offseason flew under the radar. They added James Conner in mid-April, well after the initial waves of free agency. He was expected to be a key addition to their running back rotation, but he has exceeded expectations.

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Conner is in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career. He has been a big-time weapon for the Cardinals, supporting both their high-octane passing offense and their viable rushing attack. The team has three quality backfield weapons this year in Conner, running back Chase Edmonds and quarterback Kyler Murray.

The marriage between Conner and the Cardinals has been harmonious; how did it come to be? Here’s why the parties ended up together and whether Conner’s time in the desert will last.

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Why the Cardinals signed James Conner

The Cardinals brought Conner in for a visit because the 6-1, 233-pound running back fit what they were looking for in their offense. The Arizona Republic has the details:

The Cardinals told Conner they liked his playing style and that his physical, downhill running approach was exactly what they needed to help compliment the smaller, shiftier Chase Edmonds.

Arizona wanted Conner to be their physical, downhill runner. All Conner had to do was fall in love with the Cardinals. 

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And he did.

Why James Conner signed with the Cardinals

Conner said that he joined the Cardinals for one reason: He believed the team was “on the rise.”

“I just felt right place, right time,” Conner said in mid-April after signing. “[The] opportunity to come here and just contribute to something that’s that I believe is on the rise.”

Conner also acknowledged he wanted a “change of scenery” after spending so much time in Pennsylvania. He grew up in the state and went to college at Pitt. He was selected by the Steelers in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Altogether, Conner played eight years in the Steel City. He thought that moving on to a new challenge would rejuvenate him.

“I feel brand new,” Conner said. “I get to come out here [to Arizona]. It’s my vibe, you know I love the sun and just being out here.”

Another key factor for Conner? He felt that the Cardinals had a plan for him.

“I feel accepted,” he said. “I feel like they believe in me, just like I believe in them.”

That belief apparently wasn’t there from the Steelers. Conner logged solid numbers in 2020 — 721 yards, six touchdowns, 4.3 yards per carry — but his inconsistency led Pittsburgh to move on from him and invest a first-round draft pick in Najee Harris.

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It probably didn’t hurt Arizona’s cause that James Saxon is the team’s running backs coach. Saxon coached Conner with the Steelers in 2017 and 2018, the latter of which was Conner’s lone Pro Bowl season. He racked up 1,470 scrimmage yards (973 rushing) and 13 total TDs that year. Perhaps Conner thought reuniting with Saxon could spark him.

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James Conner contract

The Cardinals were able to get Conner cheaply. They signed him to a one-year, $1.75 million contract on April 13 after he stayed on the free-agent market for almost a month.

Conner has outperformed his contract; Spotrac.com estimates his market value at two years and $4.1 million. He will become a free agent after this season, so he will have a chance to cash in on his strong year.

Will James Conner re-sign with the Cardinals?

Conner is hoping to re-sign with the Cardinals. He spoke about his desire to remain in the desert during a recent interview with The Arizona Republic.

“Man, I want to win a Super Bowl here,” Conner said. “I love the weather and everything this team has going and my teammates out here and the coaching staff. I don’t see why not, why I wouldn’t want to be here. We have all the resources and everything we need to be successful.

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“We’re going to take it one week at a time first. We’ve got a big game against Chicago coming up (he spoke before Arizona’s Week 13 game against the Bears). But after the season, I’ve got a lot of love for the Cardinals, so we’ll see what happens.”

The feeling is almost certainly mutual given how important Conner has been to Arizona’s red-zone offense.

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James Conner stats 2021

Conner has emerged as the Cardinals’ lead back in 2021. He began the season in a rotation with Chase Edmonds, but Conner emerged as the between-the-tackles ballcarrier early in the season. He has averaged 13.8 carries per game compared to Edmonds’ 8.4.

While Edmonds has gotten more receiving work, he also missed most of the last four games while dealing with a high-ankle sprain. That allowed Conner to build a lead in total yardage and take a 14-1 lead in touchdowns.

Conner’s stats through 12 games:

Stat Total
Carries 166
Rushing yards 630
Rushing TDs 12
Yards per carry 3.8
Receptions 20
Receiving yards 209
Receiving TDs 2
Yards per reception 10.5

Conner’s 14 total touchdowns are tied with the Bengals’ Joe Mixon for third-most in the NFL among non-quarterbacks. The duo rank behind only Jonathan Taylor (18) and Austin Ekeler (16) in that category.