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2022 Outlook – James Conner

The Arizona Cardinals’ James Conner looks to continue his ascendance as one of the NFL’s best running backs. How does he accomplish this in 2022?

James Conner is arguably the most underrated running back in the NFL today. After rushing for a career high 15 touchdowns in the 2021 season, he figures to continue his ascendance to the upper tier of running backs in the league. His success on the ground in the 2022 season is going to go a long way in determining the overall success of the Arizona Cardinals. The key to being able to open up the offense and get full utilization of all the team’s weapons is establishing the running game.

We all know about the Cardinals losing Chase Edmonds to the Miami Dolphins in the offseason and that the team will be counting a host of players to fill the void he leaves behind. But each of these players showed they’re up to the task throughout the preseason and training camp, leaving Conner with the clearest task of improving on his rushing yard total from ’21. His 752 rushing yards is a number the team would benefit to see increase.

Yards Per Carry

Conner had 202 rushes in ’21, 13 shy of his career high in 2018 as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It isn’t inconceivable that he gets around the ’18 amount of carries this season for the Cardinals. If he’s able to get this amount of carries make the most of them, say, averaging four-4.5 yards per carry, that figures to make things easier on the wide receivers for the team, who are without DeAndre Hopkins for the first six games.

In ’18, Conner did average 4.5 yards per carry on those 215 rushes, which came out to 973 rushing yards. In ’21, though Conner had a career-defining season in virtually every aspect, particularly total touchdowns with 18, he did average just 3.7 yards per carry. He’s also never played a full slate of games in his career, with 15 being his career high in ’21 as well. Keeping him fresh is going to be key, which is where the other running backs on the roster will become huge.

Balanced Offense

The Cardinals should also be able to count on the passing game to help out the running game in return. After receiving a massive contract in the offseason—one that received a great deal of controversy from fans and analysts alike—Kyler Murray owes the offense an incredible season. This means getting all his weapons involved in the passing game consistently, throwing defenses off balance with the unpredictability.

Cardinals fans should be able to expect Murray’s first 4,000-yard passing season, along with a 1,000-yard receiving season for Marquise Brown. If these two things happen, it becomes increasingly likely that Conner gets his first 1,000-yard rushing season. These number totals could be the difference in an eight or nine-win season and an 11 or 12-win season. The difference between a Wild Card spot in the postseason and an NFC West crown.

Remaining Fresh

Conner will be able to get to this 1,000-yard mark without being consistently utilized as a three-down running back. In today’s NFL, there is a consistently decreasing number of three-down running backs. Derrick Henry is really the only concrete exception, but he played in just eight regular season games in ’21. The dynamics of the league have shifted, but running backs are still proving able to reach that 1,000-yard mark without necessarily fulfilling the role of a traditional three-down running back.

For Conner, ensuring he reaches that 1,000-yard mark is going to mean ample carries for Eno Benjamin and Darrel Williams in order to keep him fresh. His impact, too, comes from catching balls out of the backfield, which just makes his role in the Cardinals offense that much more vital, particularly in the early part of the season without Hopkins. To this end, Benjamin and Williams should each anticipate a minimum of 60+ carries.

 
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