This week, the staff of AllCardinals breaks down each positional group as the Arizona Cardinals begin training camp at State Farm Stadium. In this second look, we evaluate the running back unit.
PROJECTED STARTERS: Chase Edmonds, James Conner
BACKUPS: Jonathan Ward , Eno Benjamin
ON THE BUBBLE/PRACTICE SQUAD: Tavien Feaster, Khalfani Muhammad
The Arizona Cardinals enter the 2021 season potentially looking for someone to emerge as the No. 1 running back.
Last year, Kenyan Drake was the "featured back" handling most of the carrying opportunities. In 15 games played, he was solid but not spectacular. He finished the year a tick under 1,000 yards rushing (955), and averaged a pedestrian four yards per attempt.
The lack of explosiveness from Drake had Cardinals fans and fantasy owners chanting for Chase Edmonds to get more runs. His 5.7 yards per touch dwarfed Drake's 4.1. But it was clear Drake was going to handle the first two downs and goal-line work, while Edmonds feasted in passing situations.
In the end, Drake out-snapped Edmonds by only 54% to 46% on the season.
With Drake now in Las Vegas, Edmonds has the opportunity to prove he should be the one getting a bulk of the duties.
"It's now or never," Edmonds told AZCardinals.com. "I've finally got my opportunity really and truly in front of me to have a pretty big role in this offense. It's something I've been dying for, praying for, since my first three years in the NFL. It seemed like it would never happen, but I've finally got this opportunity, and I've got to make the most of it."
If Edmonds wants to get nearly all the touches, he will need to beat out newly signed James Conner.
Conner is the more experienced every-down back between the two, and his one-year deal signals that this season is also a prove-it year for the 26-year-old back. Injuries have played a big part as to why Conner's numbers have taken a dip the last two seasons. The Pittsburgh Steelers weren't afraid to let him walk to take another running back in the first round of this year's draft (Najee Harris).
Behind those two starters, Jonathan Ward and Eno Benjamin will fight for third-string duties. Both players weren't factors in the grand scope of the season, so maybe this could be the year where one of them shows some flashes.
After that, Tavien Feaster and Khalfani Muhammad will need strong camps if they want to make their way into the Cardinals plans for the upcoming season.
This feels eerily reminiscent to last year, but with Conner taking over the Drake spot. We know Conner can be a bell-cow back because that's what he was during Le'Veon Bell's holdout year.
He averaged 113 scrimmage yards with 13 total touchdowns in just 13 games. At 233 pounds, Conner has the ability to be more of a bruiser, running between the tackles that complements Edmonds perfectly.
Last year, Drake was trying his best to get physical but he's really a scatback that should be catching the ball in open space. Conner is the real deal, and is not afraid to run through a brick wall.
Edmonds is a big play waiting to happen, who seemingly rips off big chunks of yardage at a time. He's got some of the softest hands in the league, which makes him a legit weapon to find the soft spot over the middle of the field, or the perfect outlet for a young quarterback.
Despite being only 5-foot-9, he's only a pound lighter than Drake at 210 pounds. It's a big reason why he's been able to handle the grueling grind of a NFL season even though he has a small frame.
No matter how their time is split, the pairing should be a better fit than last season. Conner will be the thunder that hits you in the mouth, while Edmonds is the lightning that might zip right by you, and take a couple of ankles along the way.
Best Case: Mark Ingram/Alvin Kamara
Health is a major major red flag for Conner. He has already had toe surgery this offseason for an injury that happened off the field. Over the last three seasons, Conner has been limited to 36 regular-season games.
That doesn't sound that bad, but ask fantasy mangers what it's like to roster him. There were so many instances where he had to leave a game early, or he toughed it out and played extremely ineffectively.
We didn't see Edmonds miss a game last year due to injury, but he did start to get more banged up toward the end of the season. He left the Week 16 game against the 49ers early with a hip injury. It makes one wonder if Edmonds gets 60% or more of the snaps whether he can handle it over the course of a full season.
His frame is fine if he's the change-of-pace back, but is he strong enough to be a bell-cow?
This is why whoever wins the third-string running back spot could be a major factor this upcoming season. There is nearly a 100% chance Conner doesn't play every game, and we don't know if Edmonds can hold up with a bigger workload.
Worst Case: Sony Michel/James White
Early indications point to Edmonds as the running back who will have the most touches. With Conner's health history, Edmonds should be the one getting 60% of the snaps with Conner coming in around 40% of the time.
Edmonds seemed to be on the same page with quarterback Kyler Murray last season, so it's safe to assume that connection could pop both in real life and in fantasy this year. If Conner can stay healthy for 80-90% of the games, the Cardinals will have the ability to switch up their running style depending on the opponent and coverage thrown at them.
This should lead to less running opportunities for Murray, who won't have to feel like he's the best option to pick up major yards on the ground anymore. And not getting hit as much would be nice too.
A lot of ifs and questions for the Cardinals backfield, but this duo should have a higher ceiling than last year's if things break right.
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