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James Conner carving out role as goal-line back in Arizona

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The former Pitt star has scored five touchdowns in his last three games

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Former Pitt running back James Conner has yet to start a game for the Arizona Cardinals, but over the last three weeks, he has been getting into the habit of finishing what the team has started — namely its scoring drives.

Heading into the 2021 season, the plan was always for the fifth-year veteran to split snaps with Chase Edmonds, but how exactly that would shake out was unclear. So far, Edmonds has officially been listed as the starter in all five of the Cardinals' games, but on paper, the work has been pretty evenly split between the two.

One key difference that has emerged early in the season has been yards per carry, as Conner’s 3.2 have left something to be desired compared to Edmonds' 5.5. And with a gulf forming between Conner and Edmonds in that statistical category, the team has begun to play to the strengths of its two running backs.

Specifically, the Cardinals have leaned on Edmonds to break off big runs and balance out a solid offensive attack headlined by Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray and receiver DeAndre Hopkins. And with Conner checking in at a relatively stout 6’1” and 233 pounds and Edmonds coming in at 5’9” and 210 pounds, the need has arisen for the former Pitt star to punctuate drives otherwise in danger of stalling out in goal-to-go situations.

As a result, Conner has scored in each of the Cardinals’ last three games, with two touchdowns in a 31-19 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars, two more in a 37-20 win over the Los Angeles Rams and one on Sunday in a 17-10 win over the San Francisco 49ers. Each of his last four touchdowns has been run in from one yard out, and his longest score of the year was his first, which he ran in from four yards out in the matchup with the Jaguars.

All told, Conner has 201 yards and five touchdowns on 63 carries this season as well as 34 yards on four receptions. And in addition to punching in touchdowns from close range, Conner has been relied to gain tough yardage in key situations for the Cardinals, as he has been responsible for 17 first downs in 2021. For comparison, Edmonds has 270 yards and zero scores on 49 carries but has been used more in the passing game, with 159 yards on 23 receptions. And Edmonds has come up with 14 first downs to Conner’s 17.

Because of the complementary nature of Conner’s role with the Cardinals this season, the Erie native is on pace to post a stat line more fitting of a high-scoring fullback than a halfback. Specifically, if Conner played out the remainder of the season without missing any time and consistently produced at his current rate, he would finish the season with 683 yards and 17 touchdowns on 214 carries.

Obviously, pace is a poor indicator of how things will actually end up in a league as unpredictable as the NFL, but that would be a decent outcome for Conner despite a dip in rushing yardage from last season. And the tradeoff, aside from the impressive touchdown total, is that he is playing a prominent role on a team that looks like a contender to make a deep playoff run as arguably the most balanced team in the NFC right now.

And the positives don't stop there with Conner, as the possibility exists that his role in the Cardinals offense could still expand this season. Notably, he has barely been used in the passing game, and that could change over time, as he boasts a 100 percent catch rate and has come up with 8.5 yards per reception. Those figures compare favorably to Edmonds' 88.5 catch rate and 6.9 yards per reception.

Conner also appears to be the more durable back, as he has yet to encounter any injuries, while Edmonds was listed as questionable to play on Sunday, as he was dealing with a hamstring issue. And while Edmonds did play, he managed just 15 yards on six carries. Should Edmonds' issues persist, Conner could be relied on to play a larger role, perhaps even becoming a feature back once more.

But whether that happens or not, it seems Conner is in a beneficial situation and is in a position to thrive one way or another as a member of one of the NFL's best teams. And while his move away from Pittsburgh likely came as a disappointment to Pitt fans in the area, he may well have put himself in a position to reach greater heights in the Valley of the Sun than he could have with his hometown team.