The biggest impact free-agent acquisition the Arizona Cardinals made last offseason wasn’t J.J. Watt nor A.J. Green, and with all due respect to backup king Colt McCoy, it wasn’t him, either. It’s former Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner, who is experiencing a career resurgence in his first year with Arizona.
Conner has been a scoring machine out of the Cardinals backfield all season. While he and Chase Edmonds were splitting carries before the latter was placed on IR, Conner was always the goal-line back in Arizona. As soon as they’d reach the red zone, out came Conner, ready to punch it in once again.
As the red zone back, Conner has never been a big yardage guy this year. His season high through 12 games (including three starts) is 96 yards, which he accumulated as Arizona’s primary back in their Week 9 matchup with San Francisco after Edmonds was hurt. What he has done is score points.
Conner is currently tied with Joe Mixon for third in the NFL with his 14 total touchdowns this season, just four scores behind Jonathan Taylor for the league lead. He’s on an active streak of six games with at least one touchdown, and he’s scored one or more times in nine of his last 10 games.
On top of that, he’s also seen more extensive action as a pass-catcher since Edmonds was sidelined with his ankle injury. Conner had recorded only five catches for 34 yards while he was splitting backfield duties. Since taking over starter duties, Conner has had at least two catches in all four games, with 15 catches—including his first two receiving touchdowns of the year—for 175 yards over that span.
The 12 rushing touchdowns Conner has this year also put him within an arm’s reach of Cardinals history. With five more rushing touchdowns in Arizona’s final five games, the fifth-year veteran would surpass David Johnson’s team record of 16 rushing scores in a single season.
That’s impressive production from a guy who never scored more than 13 touchdowns in a season before this year. The last time he did, he made the Pro Bowl. The years after didn’t go quite as smoothly, as injuries prevented him from another big season in Pittsburgh. According to Conner, that limited his options when he became a free agent after last year.
The Cardinals were one of those options, and their choice to bring him in on an inexpensive, one-year deal has worked incredibly well for both sides. Conner’s dominance as a red-zone back has helped push Arizona into the lead in the NFC West, and their 10-2 record tops not only their conference but the entire NFL. In return, the running back will likely have more choices for his next stop when he hits free agency this offseason.
Although Arizona’s primary starting back, Edmonds, was designated to return from IR and practiced with the team on Thursday, don’t expect Conner to slow down. His yardage could take a small hit, but he’ll still be the Cardinals’ big scorer out of the backfield, the same way he’s been all season. And after proving his worth as a pass-catching back, we’ll likely continue to see head coach and offensive play-caller Kliff Kingsbury use him more in passing situations.
With Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins back, and Edmonds on the way, the Cardinals’ offense is only continuing to get stronger. But don’t discount the monster season Conner’s having when you look at the high-powered offense that’s powering Arizona to the playoffs this season. His career resurgence in the desert has been a huge part of their success. With five games to go, keep an eye out for his end-of-season push to write his name in the Cardinals’ franchise record books and cement his legacy in Arizona.