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Cardinals Add James Conner To Running Back Mix

Steelers veteran joins fellow Pennsylvania native Chase Edmonds in backfield

New Cardinals running back James Conner signs his contract Tuesday morning alongside director of football administration Matt Harriss.
New Cardinals running back James Conner signs his contract Tuesday morning alongside director of football administration Matt Harriss.

The newest Cardinals running back, like the holdover expected to take over the starting job at the position, is from Pennsylvania, although James Conner and Chase Edmonds grew up some 300 miles apart and have never met.

But Conner, who signed a one-year contract with the Cards Tuesday morning, has belief the two will mesh well in the team's backfield.

"He's got that dog mentality, just like I've got," Conner said. "We're just gonna roll."

Conner's arrival a little more than two weeks before the draft fills yet another hole on the roster, as as GM Steve Keim attempts to free the team up in the draft to go in whatever direction the talent takes them. The deal, according to ESPN, is for $1.75 million, fully guaranteed. (A contract of $1.75M is the maximum amount without counting against a team's compensatory pick equation.)

Conner's signing doesn't preclude the Cardinals from drafting a running back. But it does give them the flexibility to not have to choose one out of need.

Conner, 6-foot-1 and 233 pounds, had spent his entire four-year career in Pittsburgh, even reaching a Pro Bowl for the Steelers in 2018. That was his best season, collecting 973 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing and adding 55 catches for 497 yards and another score.

Given that he grew up in the state and also played college football at the University of Pittsburgh – fellow Panther Larry Fitzgerald has yet to chime in on the signing – the move west is a dramatic change for Conner, who turns 26 next month.

"That time in Pittsburgh was just prepping me for where I am right now in my life and this journey, brought me here to A-Z," he said. "I felt like I was well-equipped with everything I've been through and continue to go through on this journey. I'm truly excited."

The Steelers connection also provides a link for Conner in Arizona -- Conner's position coach in 2017 and 2018 was James Saxon, who is the current Cardinals running backs coach.

"He was always more than a coach to me," Conner said.

In 2020, Conner had 721 yards rushing and six touchdowns and 35 reception for 215 yards in 13 games.

But Conner has also been banged up in his career, battling injuries in playing 13, 10 and 13 games during his three seasons as a starting back. He also recently had surgery after hurting his toe in an ATV accident, although Conner said it wasn't nearly as serious as a similar turf toe problem. Conner took a physical Monday, so any injury has been vetted.

"I'm healing up well," he said.

Conner won't have the same workload in Arizona. Edmonds, who has only started four games his first three years and hasn't had more than 97 carries in a season, has played well when given reps and coach Kliff Kingsbury has repeatedly said Edmonds would work well as the main back. Edmonds had 448 yards on 97 carries last season, as well as 53 receptions for 402 yards.

At 5-9, 210, Edmonds can be the three-down back if needed, with Conner providing relief every so often as well as more between-the-tackles heft in short-yardage situations.

After hearing the news, Edmonds tweeted "Let's ride, bro!"

Conner said his role wasn't discussed specifically nor was he predicting what might happen except that he'd work, mentioning that he was looking forward to the extended 17-game season.

The Cardinals have three other running backs on the roster along with Edmonds and Conner: 2020 seventh-round pick Eno Benjamin , 2020 undrafted rookie Jonathan Ward, and former practice squad player Khalfani Muhammad.

Waiting this deep into free agency might not have been Conner's first choice, and he admitted he's glad to have the business part out of the way with the Cardinals feeling like "the right place, the right time."

"I feel brand new," Conner said.

Images of the veteran running back inking his one-year contract on Tuesday.

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