It was only a couple years ago when James Conner ranked second in rushing touchdowns (15) and third in total touchdowns (18) that earned him a selection to the 2021 Pro Bowl.
Fast forward a season later after inking a three-year $21 million deal, Conner experienced a down year albeit 1,082 total scrimmage yards and eight total touchdowns. His effectiveness took a major downturn as he missed four games due to injury.
New Cardinals’ offensive coordinator Drew Petzing was part of two coaching staffs that featured two star running backs in Browns’ Nick Chubb and Vikings’ Dalvin Cook. Taking that into consideration, Petzing quite possibly will go the run-oriented offensive approach that should make Conner the star of the Cardinals’ 2023 season until Kyler Murray returns to full health.
As it was in Cleveland, the Browns had a dynamic ground game with Chubb and Kareem Hunt carrying the load of the offense.
Last season’s sixth-round pick out of USC Keaontay Ingram struggled to make an impact, averaging 2.2 yards per the 27 carries he had all season. Ty’Son Williams is under contract but had only one catch last season. They figure to be in the mix for now as No. 2 options. Corey Clement is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.
With Conner’s inability to remain healthy for a full season, the running back-by-committee attack is the Cardinals’ best option. With the lack of quality depth behind him, the Cardinals will be looking to find their No. 2 running back either in free agency or the draft.
So where do the Cardinals go from here?
There will be wide range of ball carriers to choose from that should be affordable for Arizona. Considering that they are already paying Conner a hefty contract for the position, it is highly doubtful for the Cardinals to break the bank on another running back to pair with him. It would not be surprising to see Monti Ossenfort make an attempt to trade Conner but teams might steer clear with the contract he has.
Free agency presents quality options and D’Ernest Johnson should be on the Cardinals’ priority list. He should not command too much money compared to his more popular free agent teammate in Kareem Hunt. Johnson made quite the impression in the Browns’ crowded backfield and Petzing’s familiarity with him in their time in Cleveland makes him a very legitimate option. Here are his stats in the two starts of his career in 2021:
Week 7 (vs. Denver): 22 carries, 146 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown, two catches, 22 receiving yards
Week 10 (@ Patriots): 19 carries, 99 rushing yards, seven catches, 58 receiving yards
Other free agent options include former Cardinals’ running back Chase Edmonds, who was recently released by the Broncos. Given that he had a quiet and injury-riddled 2022 campaign, Patriots’ running back Damien Harris should be another inexpensive option for Arizona to consider. Jerick McKinnon was a dynamic and speedy running back that did major damage as a pass catcher in the Chiefs’ high-octane offense. He turns 31 in May, has ties to Drew Petzing back in their Minnesota days, and teams do not often pay aging running backs highly. Eagles’ Miles Sanders and Boston Scott are also scheduled to hit the open market should Jonathan Gannon have interest in bringing them to Arizona.
Seahawks’ Tony Jones Jr is an impending restricted free agent and, if Ossenfort wants to look outside the box, USFL’s Dexter Williams were both coached by Cardinals’ running backs coach Autry Denson at Notre Dame.
The NFL Draft includes many potential future stars at the position headlined by Texas’ Bijan Robinson and Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs. Other talented draft prospects to monitor includes Texas A&M’s Devon Achane, UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet, TCU’s Kendre Miller, and Kansas State’s Deuce Vaughn but the list of talent is much longer than that.
Cardinals will likely have at least two new faces in their running back room with a lot of potential game changers to choose from.