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James Conner Sees The Payoff As Cardinals' Top Running Back

While top players battle for better contracts, veteran still loves his role

Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner (6) during 2023 Cardinals Training Camp at State Farm Stadium on Wednesday, July 26, 2023 in Glendale, AZ.
Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner (6) during 2023 Cardinals Training Camp at State Farm Stadium on Wednesday, July 26, 2023 in Glendale, AZ.

James Conner will say – smiling yes, but the belief is there – that he thinks he could've made a pretty good linebacker had that been his football path.

But he is a running back. The position that has been shoved even further into the spotlight recently as being undervalued in the NFL, as teams prioritize paying other positions first and even the elite runners don't understand why they can't get the paydays some of their non-running back brethren do.

Conner knows all this. Yet, "I love this. I love playing running back. I wouldn't change anything."

That's good for the Cardinals, who need the 6-foot-1, 233-pound battering ram to energize their offense this season, especially before Kyler Murray returns to the field. Conner embraces the way he has to sometimes pound inside for hard yards, sometimes float into the flat for a reception and then juke of a defender, the way he needs to score touchdowns near the goal line.

"Running back, there is something special about it," Conner said.

That may be true, although the paychecks – comparatively speaking – might not reflect it.

The game has changed since Walter Payton and even Emmitt Smith were in their heyday. Analytics and cap analysis have shown that running backs can slow quickly at a certain point, and teams fear being locked into a big contract.

It's the situation the Cardinals found themselves with David Johnson. Johnson had a spectacular 2016 season, and then he played in only one game in 2017 when he got hurt. The Cardinals still gave him a massive three-year extension with $30 million guaranteed going into 2018, only to have a combination of a poor team and Johnson's own decline leave the organization regretting the contractual choice. Johnson was traded to the Texans before the 2020 season in the DeAndre Hopkins deal.

Images from 2023 Cardinals Training Camp at State Farm Stadium

When Le'Veon Bell was franchise tagged for the 2017 season by the Steelers, it paid him $12.1 million. Six years later, the Giants tagged Saquon Barkley – for $10.1M.

Barkley and a number of high-profile running backs trying to earn contracts that equaled their production met on a recent Zoom call, but with the CBA structure the way it is, solutions aren't obvious. Barkley ended up signing a one-year deal for $11 million including incentives and a $2M signing bonus.

"I know what's going on with the running back situation and me being tagged, and the value of the running back continuing going down," Barkley told New York reporters. "The only way that I feel like that's gonna change is someone's gotta make a change, and God-willing, hopefully, I can be one of those people to do it."

Conner said he doesn't really worry about the issue, although he hopes the others get paid as they deserve and that "I respect them for taking the initiative."

Conner will make $6.25M in salary this season, along with a potential $255,000 in per-game roster bonuses. He is signed through 2024, although next year's money is not guaranteed.

"You know that what you see from (Conner) is exactly what you're going to get," guard Will Hernandez said. "You don't wonder why he does it, what his intentions are, if he really has your back. You know he does. Put the money aside, we know whether he's getting paid or not being paid or how much he's getting paid, we know he has our back and he's going to play for us. We feel that too, how he plays and how he runs the ball."

The Cardinals expect to lean on the run more often this season. Conner isn't in the stratosphere of a Barkley or Josh Jacobs, but he gained a healthy 4.3 yards a carry last season and figures to be better suited in the Drew Petzing offense.

"His combination of quickness and power and speed and vision, I'm excited to watch him behind this O-line," coach Jonathan Gannon said.

That's all Conner wants. He's playing the spot he wants to play. Even with the questions about the running back payscale, he doesn't think the position will lose prospective talent.

"That's far-fetched," Conner said. "The game is always changing.

"All I can do is maximize my opportunities while I'm in the NFL."

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