It didn’t take long for the Arizona Cardinals’ brass to decide it is pleased with the results from former Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner’s recent toe surgery. The injury — described as a moderate, turf toe-like situation — was suffered on a recreational vehicle and required an operation that is expected to have Conner back on the field in June.
This was enough for Cardinals general manager Steve Keim to give the thumbs up on inking Conner to a one-year deal.
Arizona lost running back Kenyan Drake to free agency, and No. 2 man Chase Edmonds needed a new partner in crime. Conner enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2018 when Le’Veon Bell chose to sit out over a contract dispute. The past two seasons have gone anything but great for the Pitt product, and there’s mutual hope between Conner and the Cards that his fortunes will turn around in the desert.
Conner has yet to play a full season in four years, reaching 13 games twice, and his 13 offensive touchdowns in the past 23 games ties his 13-contest output from the ’18 season. Arizona likely expects the 2018 version of Conner, but fantasy footballers should fully brace for the 2019-20 iteration. In Conner’s defense, the Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger most of 2019 and then had a disastrous offensive line and erratic play-calling issues last year. Pro Football Focus ranked the line’s run-blocking grade as the second worst in football.
A versatile back, Conner finds himself sharing time with a legitimate talent in Edmonds. While used sparingly over his first two NFL seasons, the Fordham back burst onto the scene in fantasy after a three-TD game in 2019, racking up 150 offensive yards along the way. Just when he started to get rolling, Edmonds’ season was derailed by injury.
In 2020, he split time with Drake, mainly as a receiving threat, as the third-year back hauled in 53 of 67 targets for 402 yard and four scores. He was hardly utilized as a rusher, carrying the ball more than eight times in two games, one of which Drake was absent.
The Cardinals of 2020 afforded Drake 239 carries, or 15.9 per game, over his 15 appearances. For as much passing as the Air Raid offense wants to do, and did in 2019, the reality is this was a run-positive system a season ago. Seven teams rushed with a higher frequency in 2020.
Drake found the end zone at the 12th-highest frequency among qualifying backs (150-plus attempts), and only six running backs toted the ball more on a weekly clip. He saw his receiving work dissipate from 2019’s second half, and Drake’s core fantasy worth came from scoring 10 times.
Conner showed a nose for the goal line of his own in 2018, and as long as he can remain healthy, a similar utilization plan should be in store. He enters Year 5 at age 26. Arizona offers little competition for touchdown thievery on the turf, outside of quarterback Kyler Murray. The Cardinals upgraded the offensive line in a significant fashion this offseason, trading for Las Vegas Raiders standout center Rodney Hudson.
Fantasy football takeaway
There is potential for a value buy in fantasy football drafts. Conner’s past two seasons of mediocrity should have soured enough owners, and the perception that Arizona is extraordinarily pass-happy also could depress his stock.
Injuries come with the territory for Conner. Presuming he rebounds from this latest toe ailment — a scary one for a rusher — there’s still probably going to be more games missed in his future. The Cardinals should utilize him similarly to how Drake was featured, as long as Conner produces. Should his game never get off the ground or stagnate midseason, don’t discredit the idea of this offense being turned over to Edmonds.
Just to be safe, keep tabs on Conner’s recovery from the toe surgery. It appears we’re likely to see as close to a normal of an NFL offseason program as one should expect, and that means we will get to see some obvious signs of his health status play out on the practice field.
Giving Conner the benefit of the doubt by presuming he’s ready for training camp (and that there is one), fantasy footballers should treat him as a risky-reward RB2 candidate. It wouldn’t hurt to snag Edmonds later in the draft as insurance given Conner’s extensive injury background.