It barely registered a blip on the radar screen when the Cardinals signed running back James Conner to a 1-year contract last April 13, almost a month into the 2021 league year.
More than six months later, the $1.75 million contract he signed that included a $500,000 signing bonus turned out to be one of the best value free-agent signings not only on the Cardinals but the entire NFL.
That total is only $760,000 more than the minimum salary for players with four credited seasons in the league.
Through seven games, Conner has been the thunder to running back Chase Edmonds’ lightning, establishing a physical presence in the ground attack, especially at the end of games when the Cardinals have a lead and endeavor to run clock.
For the season, Conner has 336 yards rushing with a bruising 3.8 yards per attempt, while Edmonds is at 397 yards and 5.8 per attempt. Notably, Conner has six rushing touchdowns and Edmonds is looking for his first score.
Most significant is that 36.0% of Conner's rushing attempts (32) have come in the fourth quarter and 36.3% of his yards (122).
The clashing styles of Edmonds and Conner make it difficult for a defense to adjust. Edmonds hasn't run as much in the fourth quarter, but still has 126 yards on 17 attempts. Combined, the duo have 31.2% of their attempts (49) and 33.8% of their yards (248) in the final 15 minutes of games.
Forty of Conner's fourth-quarter yards came on six attempts in one drive against Cleveland in Week 6. Leading 30-14, the Cardinals started the possession at the 7-yard line with 12:06 remaining in the game. Eleven plays and 7:18 later, wide receiver A.J. Green scored on a 14-yard pass from quarterback Kyler Murray for a 37-14 lead. Three of Conner's runs were for first downs.
Offensive line coach/run-game coordinator Sean Kugler recently said, “I’ve always admired his career, just by how hard he plays. I think he’s playing outstanding ball. He’s so motivated. He works so hard in practice. He works hard studying to understand the game plan.
“But he’s a guy at the end of the game who you want the ball in his hands because he’s violent, he’s a finisher. When teams are tired, that’s a big guy to be tackling at the end of the game. He’s been outstanding in backed-up situations.”
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury dismissed the notion this week that Conner has been a surprise.
“I have been a big fan of his and the way he's run the football since he came into the league,” Kingsbury insisted. “Tremendous competitor, tough-nosed, physical and the O-line's done a great job for him. Those guys have really complemented each other well in the backfield and I think they're just feeding off each other.
“So I wouldn't say he's exceeded expectations because when we brought him here, I was really excited about how he could fit in our system and the different things we could do with him.”
Teammates love Conner’s passionate approach to the game.
Said wide receiver Christian Kirk, “It's funny because James, on a day-to-day basis in the locker room, is one of the more quiet and chill guys, super down to earth and just relaxed throughout the week. Obviously, practices hard. But it's like a switch that's flipped on Sunday, when he gets out there. He turns into a bully.
“And I'm glad he's on our team. Couldn't imagine tackling that dude. He's just physical and he's violent. He runs the ball so hard, but he also has the dynamic ability to make a cut and get to the next level, which we've been seeing so far this season. So he's been a great addition for us.”
Added wide receiver A.J. Green, “Man, James is the guy who brings the energy. You see him out there, he’s hopping, he’s jumping, getting everybody hyped. He brings a different toughness to our team. I’ve been playing against him a lot in Pittsburgh, so I already know what he’s about. He’s tough and he brings that to our offense.”
Linebacker Jordan Hicks is also glad Conner is on his side.
Hicks said, “I haven't had to tackle him that much, but watching other guys have to tackle him makes me glad I don't have to because he can do it all. He's fast, he's physical, he can stiff-arm you. It takes multiple guys to get him down. And when you have somebody like that, that can extend drives, extend the clock, that's a defense's best friend, right?
“He's able to run first down after first down on not just easy runs, but tough, hard physical runs that gives everybody energy and shows the mindset of who he is and the run game of this offense. It's big for us, big for this team that our run game's working the way it is.”
Finally, quarterback Kyler Murray has also become a believer.
“James is a dog. Playing in Pittsburgh with that dog mentality, he's got that and he added that to this team,” Murray said. “No matter who we play, you can count on James to chip block and do anything you ask him to do. He's gonna go full speed 100% and you just know he's got everybody on the team's back. Those are the type of guys that I can go with.”