James Conner may be the Terminator, but that doesn’t mean he’s indestructible.
It’s a balance that everyone associated with the Arizona Cardinals should be aware of as they head into a season where there will be a realistic urge to give the guy more touches than a doorknob.
27-year-old Conner has the will to run inside, the skill to catch the ball from the backcourt and the drive to pass like the thinnest offensive tackle in the world. And he’s not the type to back off.
“When it’s time to play, you know? When it matters, I feel like if I (feeling good), let me go,” Conner said at the start of training camp. “Winning is the only thing that matters.”
That may be true, but recent NFL history suggests that if he tried to do all of that in the same game all season, the hangovers would be more memorable than the party.
Three linebackers don’t make it to the Super Bowl
Going back 15 years, there were 37 strikers who touched the ball 350 or more times in a single season, according to an analysis of statistics from Pro Football Reference. Most of the high-use props like Arnold Schwarzenegger ended up drowning in a lava bowl at the end of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” — and not a single Super Bowl season was in the package.
Some of these people have experienced massive withdrawals.
Tennessee’s Derek Henry played only eight games last season.
Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey has played in just 10 games since 2019 when he became the third player in NFL history to go 1,000 yards in a rush and receive in the same season.
And in Arizona, we all know what happened to David Johnson.
Their other backs held it for a while, but their team’s excessive reliance on one man was ultimately their downfall.
Adrian Peterson somehow 350 touch four times in his Minnesota career, but his team hasn’t made it to the last Sunday.
Dallas’ Zeke Elliott did that three times but never made it past the second round of the playoffs.
And Chicago’s Matt Forte has had three massive seasons, and only once has the Da Bears finished over 0.500 – and even that year (2008) they didn’t make the playoffs.
This means that even if Cardinals coach Cliff Kingsbury can give James Conner the ball 20 times every weekend, that doesn’t mean he should. (This is a line from “Jurassic Park,” which back-running coach James Saxon may need to whisper to Kingsbury during offensive meetings and photo sessions.)
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The competition for playing time will be fierce
Pre-season would be a good time for Kingsbury to decide between former Arizona State star Eno Benjamin, Kansas City defector Daryl Williams, veteran Jonathan Ward and rookies Quentai Ingram, TJ Pledger and Ronnie Rivers.
Benjamin Ward was in the system the longest, entering their third year with the Cardinals.
Anyone who has been around the Sun Devils will find it difficult to be objective about Benjamin’s potential. He went 312 yards sprinting against Oregon in 2018, breaking tackle like elementary school kids break out crayons. And he had 248 yards and five touchdowns in two wins over Arizona in the Regional Cup Showdowns. Last season he played quite a bit, earning 160 yards by landing 40 touches for the Cardinals.
Meanwhile, Ward had 67 yards in 12 touches last year, which isn’t a bad thing for the man who made the team an unrefined rookie free agent and worked his way away from the coaching team on the active roster.
Both Benjamin Ward played on special teams, and any player who stands out the most in this vital third phase of the game can have an advantage when the time comes to decide who gets the ball more often.
Williams is the NFL’s most accomplished finisher, gaining more than 1,000 scrimmage yards on nearly 200 touches last season. He was a member of the Kansas City winning Super Bowl after the 2018 season. He played in KC’s Super Bowl loss to Tampa the following year. And last season, he was a major reason why Andy Reed and Patrick Mahomes missed out on their third NFL title in three years.
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Beginners have a long way to go
Rookies are beginners. So Ingram, Pledger, and Rivers will have to prove that they belong at this level.
Kingsbury will likely have only four appearances on the list. Conner and Williams are collaborators. Probably Benjamin Word.
Ingram, Pledger and Rivers will have to show big flashes in pre-season opportunities to get their way into the conversation.
Ingram, last season at USC, went for 204 yards in a win over the struggling UA team. A week later, the ASU carried him to 54 yards and the Trojans returned to Los Angeles with a loss.
Pledger began his college career with Kyler Murray in Oklahoma, but he wasn’t the team’s primary choice. In Utah last season, Pledger combined 168 yards and three touchdowns in wins over Arizona and Arizona State.
Rivers was a rushing and receiving threat at Fresno, where he ended his career as an all-time school captain in touchdowns (50) and receiving yards by running backwards (1417).
If I advise Cliff Kingsbury, I’d suggest using Benjamin in a role similar to Chase Edmonds last season. They are similar in that they are smaller, more shifting fullbacks and will provide a change of pace from Conner. The guesswork here is that Kingsbury likes the idea of mixing up his playing styles.
“I’ve said it a lot,” Kingsbury said. “But … we were playing our best football, when (Conner) and Chase were kind of splitting the workload and staying fresh, and we were able to maximize what each player does best. Hopefully we can find a similar tempo this year.”
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The counter-argument is that defenders will tire and tire after bouncing off Conner and Williams, both of whom are goal-line types who will hit a man once he’s crossed. But I will keep it that way for later in the season.
There should also be scope for Rondell Moore to use his second year off the field in special situations.
However, the Cardinal must resist the urge to make James Conner back with a triple.
It’s great for fantasy football, but in real life it’s not a winning strategy for the player or his team.
Connor may be the destroyer, but he is not indestructible.
Contact Moore at email@example.com or 602-444-2236. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter Tweet embed.
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