On Monday unrestricted free agent running back James Conner had a visit with the Arizona Cardinals. On Tuesday the Cardinals announced that they have signed him to a one-year contract to help “provide depth behind [presumed starter] Chase Edmonds,” a former 2018 fourth-round pick. In other words, Arizona won’t be relying on Conner to be its No. 1 option, and with less of a workload, the hope is that he will incur fewer injuries than he did in Pittsburgh.
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James Saxon is Arizona’s Running Backs Coach
Another reason why there figures to have been a mutual attraction between Conner and the Cardinals is that James Saxon is Arizona’s running backs coach. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Saxon in January 2019, yet Conner had his best NFL season in 2018 while under Saxon’s tutelage. That year Conner rushed for 973 yards and caught 55 passes for another 497 yards while scoring a total of 13 touchdowns, good enough for him to earn his one and only Pro Bowl berth.
Also of note is that Conner will (likely) be running behind former Steelers offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum, who recently re-signed with the Cardinals, inking a two-year contract for a total of $4 million, which has to be one of the biggest bargains in the NFL.
While there was speculation about Beachum returning to Pittsburgh this year (thanks to his connection to Steelers offensive line coach Adrian Klemm), Arizona employs Sean Kugler as run game coordinator/offensive line coach. You may recall that Kugler coached in Pittsburgh between 2010-12 and also maintains strong ties to Beachum.
James Conner: ‘Fear is a Choice’
Of course, moving to Phoenix will be a different experience for Conner, who has played all of his high school, college and professional career in western Pennsylvania. Last spring he published an autobiography titled Fear is a Choice: Tackling Life’s Challenges with Dignity, Faith, and Determination (Harper Collins), in which he chronicled his journey from McDowell High School (in Erie, Pa.) to the University of Pittsburgh to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who selected him in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Most notably, the book also relates how: he overcame a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma to realize his dream of playing in the NFL; how he came to recognize how getting cancer was part of God’s plan for him; and how he now plays football “for those who can’t.”
Expect the Steelers to Add a Running Back in the 2021 Draft
Meanwhile, back in Pittsburgh, the Steelers now have a need for a running back capable of filling a starting role. Right now, the best back on the team is 2019 fourth-round pick Benny Snell Jr., with 2018 fifth-rounder Jaylen Samuels and 2020 fourth-rounder Anthony McFarland Jr. arguably the next-most talented backs on the roster.
Two weeks ago, the Steelers added former Dolphins and Chargers running back Kalen Ballage, signing him to a one-year deal. Trey Edmunds and fullback Derek Watt round out the running backs room, though Edmunds is a fringe roster player and Watt was rarely utilized on offense during his first season with the team (2020).
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