Cardinals’ RB Conner in prime, ready to carry rushing load
GLENDALE – The 27-year-old James Conner enters his sixth NFL season as the unquestioned leader on Arizona's running back depth chart. The bruising 6-foot-1, 233-pounder is coming off a Pro Bowl season where he ran for 752 yards, caught 37 passes for 375 yards and scored a career-high 18 touchdowns.
But like the rest of the Cardinals, he wore down as the season progressed. Arizona started the season 10-2 record but lost four of the last five regular-season games.
Conner's absence was part of the reason for the downfall. He was inactive for two of the last three regular-season games and was clearly not 100% healthy in the team's ugly 34-11 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Wild Card round.
Thus, coach Kliff Kingsbury won't push him hard during the preseason. That's easier said than done, considering Conner practices just as hard as he plays.
“You almost have to save him from himself a little bit,” Kingsbury said. “He’s that valuable.”
To keep Conner healthy, the Cardinals would like to find another back who can split time in the backfield. Last season, that partner was Chase Edmonds, who ran for nearly 600 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
But Edmonds is gone to the Miami Dolphins. The Cardinals' options are former Kansas City back Darrel Williams and young holdovers like Eno Benjamin.
“I’ve said it a bunch, but that’s when I thought we were playing our best football, when he and Chase were splitting the workload and staying fresh,” Kingsbury said. “We were able to maximize what each guy does best. Hopefully we’ll find a similar rhythm this year.”
The 5-foot-11, 219-pound Williams is the most logical successor to Edmonds. He ran for 558 yards and caught 47 passes for 452 yards last year in Kansas City.
But there's little doubt Conner is the top option. He'll be asked to get the hardest yards when the Cardinals are trying to punch the ball into the end zone.
The hope is Conner can stay healthy for all 17 regular-season games even though he's at a position known for being extremely tough on the body.
“Nutrition, sleep, just working smarter,” Conner said. “I feel great, I don't even want to talk about getting old, I feel like I've got a lot of years left in this league.”