Can James Conner be the Marshawn Lynch for the Cardinals offense?

from Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports NFC West Writer

GLENDALE, Arizona – James Connor says it’s not about getting more carries this season for Arizona Cardinals.

“It’s touches,” the bruised running back said. “I feel like maybe I can do some good damage in the passing game this season, especially with the weapons we have on the outside. And I trust my hands. I’m working on it. So in the air or on the ground, I feel like I can do it.”

Last season, Conner totaled 752 yards rushing on 202 carries, including a career-high 15 rushing touchdowns. The Pittsburgh product added 37 receptions for 375 receiving yards and three TDs. Conner believes he can increase his receiving production in Arizona’s dynamic passing game.

“I’m aiming for more,” he said when asked if he’ll repeat his touchdown production from 2021. “I just want to win ballgames and do everything I can. But it is absolutely realistic. This year I trained like no other. I feel like a dog, so I’m ready to roll.”

Conner split time with Chase Edmonds last year and signed a three-year, $21 million deal in the offseason, while Edmonds went to the Miami Dolphins in free agency. Edmonds had 903 scrimmage yards and two total touchdowns in 2021 for the Cardinals.

Third-year pro Eno Benjamin, free-agent addition Darrell Williams and rookie Keontay Ingram will compete to win roles as complementary linebackers. But with Edmonds gone, Conner is expected to operate as the lead back, taking the pressure off Kyler Murray to carry the offense.

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Conner said all the work he did in the offseason was to prepare for an expanded role. This work was both physical and mental, including daily meditation.

“Basically, I’m just thankful for what the good Lord has done for me, where he’s gotten me, what he’s put me through and the doors he’s opened for me,” Connor said.

The 27-year-old running back has been through a lot, including stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma during his college career. It’s fair to question whether he can carry the load of a bell cow considering he’s never played a full season in his five-year NFL career.

Conner missed two games last season with a heel injury and then played through a rib injury suffered in Arizona’s final regular season game against the Seattle Seahawks. He recorded just 15 snaps in a 34-11 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

The main goal this season is for Connor to play all 17 games.

“We want to be smart with James, make sure he’s healthy,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “He’s a guy who wants to train all the time, go as hard as he can on every rep.”

Kingsbury added that Arizona’s offense was at its best when Conner and Edmonds kept each other fresh by sharing the load. The coach will be looking for other defensive backs to step up and replace what the Cardinals got from Edmonds last year.

“You almost have to save him from himself a little bit,” Kingsbury said of Conner. “He is so precious. You saw when he was on the field, the plays he made in the passing game. He’s obviously a tough runner. But we want to be smart about it. It’s a long season.”

Connor, for his part, sounds like he wants to carry the load. “When it’s game time and they count, I feel like if I’m in rhythm, they’re going to let me go because winning is the only thing that matters,” he said.

Can Conner make an impact like Marshawn Lynch did with the Seahawks? Lynch rushed for a league-high 4,153 yards and 36 total touchdowns from 2012 to 2014 — a stint that included back-to-back Super Bowl appearances for Seattle in the 2013 and ’14 seasons.

Like Murray now, the Seahawks had a young, mobile quarterback running their offense and used Lynch as the drive teams had to game plan each week. The mercurial Lynch was the angry runner and tone-setter for the Seahawks.

At 6-foot-1 and 233 pounds, the confident Connor projects that kind of imposing presence.

“When you have that kind of power, it’s very intimidating,” Raiders DE Chandler Jones told NFL Network of his former teammate, who was recently named No. 80 on the league’s top 100 players list. “Even for a defensive end like me, you don’t want to deal with that. I don’t want to fight James Conner.”

Along with his physical presence, Connor has earned the respect of his teammates for his inspiring fight against cancer, which he writes about in his book, Fear is a Choice.

With Arizona hosting the Super Bowl this year, Conner hopes the Cardinals can make it to the title game, just like the Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have done in their home stadiums in the past two Super Bowls.

“It’s crossed my mind,” Connor said. “We want to be the team here playing in it. I don’t want to think about anyone else using our locker room preparing for this game. This is our dressing room. So that means everything to us. And that’s what we want to do this year.”

Conner’s performance and ability to stay healthy will go a long way in determining whether the Cardinals reach that goal.

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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