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.

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