The summer is here, meaning we’re getting closer to the start of fantasy football drafts. Success in those drafts will come from landing terrific bargains in the middle to late rounds while avoiding players who could see their numbers decline compared to 2021. That latter exercise isn’t easy, however, especially in the case of players who are among the elite at their position or are coming off breakout seasons in the stat sheets.
Case in point. In 2018, James Conner emerged into a fantasy superstar as the new lead running back in Pittsburgh. He finished sixth in fantasy points at the position, despite the fact that he missed three games. That success, plus his versatile skill set, made him a surefire first-round pick in most 2019 redrafts. Fantasy folks just trusted that because Conner was so good in his breakout year, he’d be just as good or better the following year. Unfortunately, those of you who sunk a first rounder on him found out differently.
Conner missed six games in 2019, and his average stats per game went downhill. His yards per carry average dropped from 4.5 to 4.0, and his fantasy points per game average went from 21.5 to 14.6. The Pitt product finished a very disappointing RB35.
The point here is that few folks saw this coming because Conner was so good in 2018. That leads me to this series, aptly named “The Fantasy Case Against …” where I’ll do my due diligence in looking at players who everyone in fantasy land seems to think is a sure bet to remain uber-productive after finding a high level of success in past seasons.
Next up, let’s take a look at the aforementioned Conner after his solid 2021 campaign.
Conner had a huge season in 2021 with 1,127 scrimmage yards and 18 touchdowns for the Cardinals. Those totals were good enough for him to finish fifth in fantasy points among running backs. It wasn’t the type of season that most fantasy analysts expected, either. In fact, Conner was the 40th running back selected on average based on the draft data from Fantasy Football Calculator. Runners like Sony Michel, Jamaal Williams, Zack Moss and Trey Sermon all went ahead of Conner. Heck, he wasn't even the first Cardinals running back off the board—that was Chase Edmonds, who was the RB28.
Did You Know?
Conner ranked third among running backs in goal-line looks with 18, behind Jonathan Taylor (30) and Antonio Gibson (19). He scored 35.5% of his touchdowns in goal-to-go situations, and no other Cardinals running back had more than five goal-line looks in 2021. However, Conner did have the lowest yards-per-rush average (3.72) of any running back who finished in the top 24 in fantasy points. Alvin Kamara had the second-lowest total, rushing for 3.74 yards per attempt. Clearly, the touchdowns and red-zone opportunities were huge in terms of Conner being a major fantasy asset.
A running back has scored 18 or more touchdowns 58 times in a single season since 1945. Based on my research, Steve Van Buren was the first runner to do it when he found the end zone 18 times for the Philadelphia Eagles that season. In all but six of those 58 instances, the back saw a decline in total touchdowns the following season.
Now, let’s take a look at much more recent data. In the last 20 seasons, we’ve seen running backs score 18 or more touchdowns on 13 occasions. Todd Gurley (2017, 2018) and Kamara (2018, 2020) are the only players to do it twice in that time.
Since three running backs (Conner, Jonathan Taylor and Austin Ekeler) hit the mark last year, we can look at the other 10 to examine levels of touchdown regression during their next campaign. In all but one case (Gurley, 2018), the player saw a decline in end-zone visits of at least one and as many as 20. The high end of that was David Johnson (2016), but he missed most of that season for the Cardinals with an injured wrist.
Among the players who suited up for most of his games the year after scoring at least 18 touchdowns, the average decline in end-zone visits was 8.7. That ranged from one fewer touchdown (Derrick Henry – 2020) to 15 fewer (LeGarrette Blount – 2017). Fantasy managers should expect a similar decline (8.7) from Conner this season.
Coaching & Personnel Changes
Kliff Kingsbury will again lead the Cardinals and be the main play-caller on offense. The most significant changes made during the offseason were primarily in player personnel. The team lost Edmonds to the Miami Dolphins as a free agent and added former Chiefs runner Darrel Williams to the backfield mix. The Cardinals also selected Keaontay Ingram in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
While the loss of Edmonds and his 17.5% touch share from a season ago should be a good thing for Conner, don’t be surprised if Kingsbury uses Williams in that role. A good pass catcher, the veteran had 47 receptions in Kansas City’s offensive attack last season. The Cardinals also don’t want to overburden Conner, who has dealt with his share of injuries at the NFL level. In fact, he’s never played a full slate of games.
Even the most optimistic fantasy analyst will admit that touchdown regression is a virtual guarantee for Conner in 2022. Just look at the historical data. Conner himself saw a decline of six scores the year after he posted 13 total touchdowns with the Steelers (2019). I’d also point out that Conner's 42 red-zone looks were a career-high, and the Cardinals ranked fourth in drives that resulted in a goal-to-go situation. Edmonds also missed time, so it was the perfect storm for Conner to produce.
The Cardinals offense, with the addition of field stretcher Marquise Brown to a passing attack that already has DeAndre Hopkins (after his six-game suspension), A.J. Green, Rondale Moore and Zach Ertz, is also going to throw the ball at a high rate (56% in 2021). Whether or not those passes result in such a high number of goal-line looks for Conner remains to be seen, but chances are he’ll see a decrease in such opportunities.
Also, remember that their offensive line ranked 31st in the league in run blocking and 27th in rushing grade last season per PFF. Arizona did add OG Will Hernandez as a free agent, but he’s been far less than stellar overall during his short tenure in the NFL.
In June, Conner was the 16th running back off the board with an average draft position of 31.7 over at the National Fantasy Football Championships website. That is a drop of 11 spots compared to where he finished at the position in 2021, and it’s certainly warranted. I feel much more comfortable drafting Conner as a No. 2 back, knowing his chances of duplicating his 18 total touchdowns and 257.5 points from last season are slim. I’d also suggest drafting Williams later as a potential handcuff.
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Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!