The Arizona Cardinals were stunned by a short-handed Los Angeles Rams team on Monday Night Football. Sean McVay's Rams entered the contest without the services of several key performers such as Jalen Ramsey, Darrell Henderson, Tyler Higbee, and Rob Havenstein due to COVID-related protocols, but still managed to upset their NFC West division rivals by a thrilling final score of 30-23.
In the game, the Cardinals amassed 447 yards of total offense. Current starting running back James Conner found the end zone on two occasions, bringing his rushing touchdown total to an astonishing 14, just two off the league-lead of 16 scores by Colts running back Jonathan Taylor. Conner's nose for the end zone has been elite all throughout 2021.
Conner's play represents the best value contract signed during the 2021 offseason, from a production per dollar aspect. Conner hit free agency in March to little fanfare or interest. There were no "these teams should sign Conner" articles circulating. His four-year rookie contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers had just expired. The former Pittsburgh Panther was fresh off of a two-year stretch that was deemed largely ineffective, and he would linger in free agency for several weeks.
Running backs are often met with little interest on the open market. A ball-carrier that missed several contests in each of his first four seasons and struggled to make the desired impact in 2019 and 2020 received even less interest. Conner ultimately signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals worth a modest $1.75 million to serve as a heavier change-of-pace option to penciled-in starter Chase Edmonds.
What's transpired since then was impossible to predict. Conner has 964 yards from scrimmage in 13 games and is on pace to surpass 1,260 total yards, which would come close to matching his incredible 2018 breakout campaign. Conner's ability to pick up the slack in Edmonds' absence has been welcomed with open arms and is where this contract truly shines through as the best value deal signed in 2021.
Edmonds suffered a high-ankle sprain in a Week 9 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Since stepping into the bellcow role, Conner has totaled 398 yards of offense while scoring five touchdowns in four games. Conner's newfound impact in the passing game has perhaps served as the most surprising post-Edmonds development.
In nine games alongside Edmonds, Conner totaled just 10 receptions and several of them occurred in the same contest Edmonds exited with an injury. In four appearances since Edmonds went on injured reserve, Conner has secured 19 receptions, including a season-high nine against the Rams on Monday. His recent average of 4.75 receptions per contest has more than quadrupled his early-season pass-catching production and has provided superstar quarterback Kyler Murray with another option in an elite offense.
The 10-3 Cardinals may have lost their grip on the NFC's No. 1 seed for the time being, but Kliff Kingsbury's impressive squad remains a force to reckon with in the conference's ever-changing playoff picture. No formidable opponent is hoping to draw a showdown with the Cardinals in January or February, and the 2021 play of Conner has a ton to do with that.