Should you draft James Conner in fantasy football this year?

As he works to find his new role in the Arizona Cardinals' backfield, should you draft James Conner in fantasy football this year?

Playing for a new team for the first time in his career, RB James Conner is firmly in the mix for the RB1 spot for the Arizona Cardinals, leading fantasy football managers to wonder whether or not they should draft him in 2021. After some inconsistent performances along with injuries over the last few seasons, how should fantasy managers preparing for drafts view Conner, and should he be drafted in 2021?

James Conner saw a sizeable dip in production mid-way through 2020

I know 2020 feels like a decade ago, but believe it or not, former Pittsburgh Steelers RB James Conner was a reliable starting fantasy football player for a decent chunk of the season.

From Weeks 2 through 8, Conner was the RB9 in fantasy, averaging 17.8 points per game and 0.8 fantasy points per opportunity. Through Week 8, Conner had 110 carries for 498 yards and 5 touchdowns to go along with 18 receptions for 125 yards. That’s 19 opportunities per game.

For context, only nine running backs averaged this last season. Excluding Week 1, Conner was an RB2 or better in every game over this period. Then the wheels fell off for his fantasy value, and you can’t even entirely fault him or it either.

While Conner did miss three of the final nine games (two due to COVID-19), the Steelers’ offense destroyed his value. Following their game against the Titans, Ben Roethlisberger attempted 443 passes in 10 games — that’s a 16-game pace of 709 attempts. 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. 

After a promising start, Conner saw his production cut in half, averaging 9.8 rushes per game for 37 yards and 0.2 TDs with 3.3 targets, 2.8 receptions, and 15 yards as a receiver. Conner was the RB46 during this time, averaging 9.1 points per game and 0.68 points per opportunity.

Conner went out west to the Cardinals in the offseason

At this point, I feel that when you sign or are drafted by the Steelers, you are handed directions on how to get to Phoenix, Arizona, because eventually, everyone ends up there. From 2007 through 2020, 41 different players or staff have made the 2,060-mile trip to Phoenix. That list added its 42nd member as Conner signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals during the offseason.

With Kenyan Drake now on the Las Vegas Raiders, Conner looks to fill his role while playing alongside Chase Edmonds. There is an opportunity here for Conner. 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 their red-zone carries up for grabs.

There is a debate on who will be the primary running back in Arizona. But as 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.” 

Regardless, do we even know which Conner we are getting for fantasy football? After 270 touches, 1,470 total yards, and 13 touchdowns in 2018 (RB6), Conner has missed nine games in the last two seasons with various injuries. He also recorded RB2 or better performances 92% of the time in 2018. Since then, he’s averaged 13.6 ppg while finishing as an RB2 or better in just 56% of his games active (23). 

He now goes from having the backfield relatively to himself to sharing it with another solid and efficient RB while also not receiving the more valuable opportunities (targets are roughly worth 2.5 carries in PPR). So what should fantasy managers do regarding Conner as their drafts quickly approach?

Should you draft James Conner in fantasy football this year?

Conner — and this offense, in general — is one of the more fascinating players in fantasy heading into 2021. 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%. However, their pace of play skyrocketed from 11th in 2019 to the second-fastest in 2020, running a play every 25.06 seconds. This led to the fourth-highest number of plays run overall (1,083). 

While I do expect to see a jump in passing production, the rushing game will still be there. The question is how Conner fits into the grand scheme of things. With Edmonds getting carries along with passing work and Kyler Murray being heavily utilized in the rushing attack (133 carries in 2020), especially in the red zone (24 carries), Conner is left in a somewhat awkward spot.

When you lose the high-leverage opportunities, the floor can quickly disappear unless that player is high-efficient with their touches. Sure, Conner has averaged 4.3 yards per carry since 2018, but that alone will not cut it in 2021 for fantasy. 

On the positive side of things, he won’t make you break the bank to acquire him. On Sleeper, Conner is the RB35 (99.9 ADP). Similarly, on FleaFlicker, he is the RB33 (93 ADP).

That’s roughly two to three rounds later than Edmonds, which I think is reasonable for the role he finds himself in this season. As an RB3 or a flex play in fantasy football, Conner could have some upside in games where he finds the end zone or when Edmonds potentially misses time. The Cardinals look to have one of the more potent offenses in the NFL this season.

Tommy Garrett is a Fantasy Analyst for Pro Football Network and is a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can read more of his work here and follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.