James Conner’s fantasy outlook and projection for 2021

Embroiled in a positional battle on a new team, what is James Conner's fantasy outlook for 2021, and should you draft him at his current ADP?

After four seasons playing for his hometown team and endearing himself in the hearts of the city, RB James Conner looks to reset his fantasy football outlook and career trajectory with the Arizona Cardinals. In what many see as an open competition for the starting running back role on the depth chart, should fantasy managers target Conner at his current ADP, and what is his projection heading into the 2021 season?

James Conner’s fantasy outlook for 2021

We always talk about college universities having “pipelines” to certain states or specific areas where they target recruits. For the Cardinals, western Pennsylvania — more specifically, the Steelers — has been a pipeline. There’s a reason they have been called “Pittsburgh West” ever since Ken Whisenhunt took off for the sunny weather. 

From 2007 through 2020, 41 different players or staff have made the 2,060-mile trip to Phoenix. That list includes names like Bruce Arians, Todd Haley, Alan Faneca, Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, Joey Porter, and even “Mean” Joe Green as a coach/scout. That list added its 42nd member as Conner signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals during the offseason.

Following his breakout 2018 campaign, where he took over the job during Le’Veon Bell’s holdout, the workload seemed to take its toll on Conner. During the 2019 season, Conner played in just 10 games, rushing 116 times for 464 yards and 4 touchdowns. With that said, he had success last year until the Steelers literally took the ball out of his hands. 

In 13 games, Conner rushed 169 times as the featured back for 721 yards and 6 touchdowns. He also added 35 receptions on 43 targets for 215 yards. A team that prided itself on the run and being able to impose its will was the worst rushing team in the NFL. The Steelers rushed for just 1,351 yards (84.3 per game) in 2020. Now, it is not fair to pin this on Conner. He worked with what he was given, and the offense just rarely ran the ball.

Pittsburgh all but eliminated the rushing attack

Up to Week 7, Conner was the featured back, and he saw a workload that reflected it. He had 75 carries (15 per game) and averaged 18 total touches per game for 90 yards. However, after their game against the Titans, Conner, Benny Snell, and the rest of the RBs rushed only 153 times combined over the rest of the season. That’s an average of 15.3 rushes per game and a 75/25 split.

From Weeks 2 through 8, Conner was the RB9 in fantasy, averaging 17.8 points per game and 0.8 fantasy points per opportunity. From that point on, things went downhill for Conner. He missed two games due to testing positive for COVID-19 and missed Week 15 with a quad injury. As a result, Conner was the RB46 from Week 9 on and the RB42 in per-game scoring at 9.1. 

But now, Conner has a new opportunity in front of him, as he enters what many believe is a position battle for the RB1 role in Arizona with RB Chase Edmonds. 

Who will sit atop the depth chart at RB for the Cardinals?

PFN’s NFL Insider Adam Beasley reported on July 7, “the Cardinals’ training camp battle at running back might be a battle in name only.” If this is the case, Conner is slated for secondary touches while playing second fiddle inside the red zone. But there is a sizable amount of work that could allow him to be a fantasy-relevant player.

Arizona enters the 2021 season with the seventh-highest amount of unaccounted carries at 239 (49.8%). Furthermore, the Cardinals enter 2021 with 72.4% of the red-zone carries up for grabs.

Personally, I do have Edmonds as the RB1, but Conner is not far off. The main difference being the slight increase in rushes and the passing volume Edmonds is likely to see. What will be the deciding factor is who ends up the primary red-zone back. Kenyan Drake actually led the NFL in goal-to-go carries last season and the second-most in carries from inside the five-yard line with 21.

I view Conner as an RB3 or potential flex play that could have some games as an RB2, especially if Edmonds misses any time. Perhaps Conner playing in a workload split will be the best way for him to stay on the field and, in turn, stabilize his weekly fantasy outlook.

Fantasy projection

Although the Cardinals did bring in Conner to pair with Edmonds, I would not take this as a sign of them wanting to run the ball more. If anything, they likely will throw more as the additions of A.J. Green and rookie Rondale Moore should prove more impactful. 

For as pass-happy as we think Kingsbury is, the Cardinals ran the ball on 44% of their plays (479), the seventh-highest percentage in 2020. For comparison, the league average was 42%. But their pace jumped from 11th in 2019 to the second-fastest in 2020, running a play every 25.06 seconds, which led to the fourth-highest number of plays run overall (1,083). This team is built on tempo, not trying to stall the clock.

Combining the offseason moves and the need to keep up in a loaded NFC West, it’s more likely we see the Cardinals jump in passing volume to closer to the 60% range. There are still plenty of attempts to go around, but we can’t forget to set some aside for Kyler Murray, who rushed 93 times in 2019 and 133 times last season — 24 of which came inside the red zone, which he converted into 9 touchdowns.

As for projections, I have Conner as the RB2 in Arizona, but he should still be usable for fantasy managers in 2021. Currently, he is slated for about 140 carries for nearly 600 yards and 4 touchdowns. Furthermore, he could see 30-35 receptions for an additional 275 yards and 2 scores.

James Conner’s ADP

According to Sleeper, Conner currently has an ADP of 103.7 in half-PPR formats. On Fleaflicker, Conner’s ADP is currently 98.3. Additionally, on pay-for-play NFC, Conner’s ADP is 108.47.

Should you draft Conner for fantasy in 2021?

I am a Conner fan. As someone who watched him play at Pitt and followed his story to watching him wear the Black and Gold, you could not help but cheer for the guy. One day they will make a movie about him. 

I’ll be completely transparent; after making projections for all 32 teams, the split between Conner and Edmonds is the one I am the least confident in for 2021. It’s this and then the 49ers’ backfield that has been the two most puzzling. 

Every single day, you see a different report. One says Edmonds has the leg up, and then you see another where Conner will see the bulk of the carries plus the red-zone work. But in the end, how much do we think these guys will separate themselves? 

Both likely end the season in the same range as weekly RB3 or flex options because the roles will change based on how the game dictates the script. You can’t go wrong with either player, assuming you are adding them as a depth piece rather than a necessary starter in your fantasy lineup. An easy way to choose on draft day is to select the best value, and based on current ADP, that would be Conner.

Tommy Garrett is a Fantasy Analyst for Pro Football Network and is a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can read all of Tommy’s work here, listen to him on PFN’s Fantasy Football podcast, and check out his contributions in PFN’s free fantasy newsletter. Give him a follow on Twitter: @TommyGarrettPFN.

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