The Spotlight Series
A Footballguys Spotlight is an in-depth look at a player. His plusses and minuses are examined, and we give you our bottom-line stance on his 2022 prospects. If a player listed below doesn't yet have a link, don't worry. It's coming soon.
Hate evokes powerful emotions. The term ripples through sports and has spawned iterations, from "Sports Hate," describing a team or player you want to see fail only on the field, to "Love and Hate," to define fantasy football player values. In the fantasy discussion, hate centers upon the acquisition price and what alternatives require sacrifice to add the player to rosters.
James Conner is almost impossible to hate.
Conner is one of the best sports stories in the NFL. Conner broke out as a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh with 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns. He soared up draft boards and garnered Heisman buzz before a torn MCL ended his junior season in week one. While recovering, he received life-changing news, tumors had grown around his heart, and doctors said had they not been found, he had a week to live. But Conner fought back to top 1,000 yards in his final year at Pitt before going to the hometown Steelers in round 3 of the 2017 draft.
Heading into the 2018 season, Conner was an afterthought as a backup to LeVeon Bell. A messy contract situation and a prolonged holdout opened an opportunity, and Conner seized it, with nearly 1,500 total yards and a top-six fantasy finish. Two seasons as the Steelers lead back followed, though injuries and ineffective line play found him on the free-agent market as an afterthought addition to the Cardinals. Given the opportunity and a fresh start, he again made the most of his situation, clearing 1,100 total yards and 18 touchdowns to finish as PPR RB8.
The reward? An ADP worth hating at 27th overall.
Questions abound. Does Conner have real competition in the Cardinals backfield? Can he maintain his high touchdown rate? Most importantly, is there a path to returning value if either of those factors breaks against him?
Breaking Down The Cardinals Backfield
Analyzing season-ending numbers paints the picture of a split backfield. Conner played 50% of the snaps, and Chase Edmonds took 41% and split opportunities 241 to 169. A split workshare played out when both were healthy, with Edmonds taking the lead role at 58% of snaps while Conner played 40%. But in the seven games with one out, the backfield shifted wildly, with Conner spiking to 81% and Edmonds to 86%.
Most concerning is Conner's role with and without Edmonds. In games without Edmonds, Connor was the complete back he has flashed throughout his career. He averaged 5.6 targets, 5 receptions, and 44.8 receiving yards as the sole back, but with Edmonds, those numbers cratered to 1.3 targets, 1.2 receptions, and 14 yards. Curiously his rushing numbers barely shifted, increasing only 2.5 yards per game. The difference in PPR formats is drastic. He averaged 23 points per game in PPR formats, putting him at overall RB2 on a per-game basis. In the split with Edmonds, he drops to 14.15, dropping him to RB18 and pricing his ADP at RB15 above his realistic ceiling.
With Edmonds's departure to Miami, the runway looked clear for Conner to ascend to that top-end projection until the team added Darrel Williams.
At first brush, Williams is a run-of-the-mill backup running back. A four-year vet with a very pedestrian career of 3.8 yards per attempt will not push most away from Conner. But Williams excels in one particular area: the passing game. Williams saw 57 targets he converted at an 82.5% catch rate for 452 yards. The 452 yards tied him for fifth out of all running backs, and his 82.5% catch rate was the highest of any back who saw at least 50 targets.
The Cardinals have stated clear intentions on Conner. They view him as an early-down back, replacing Edmonds with a passing game specialist.
Is Touchdown Regression Imminent?
The NFL has seen 13 running backs hit 15 touchdowns in the last ten seasons. The following season the group as a whole dropped in efficiency:
|Player||Year||High-TD Season||Following Season||Delta|
Looking at the sample, most of these backs are fantasy stalwarts drafted in the top handful of picks except for Blount and Conner, two specialists. Only two players did not see significant declines: Christian McCaffrey, who only played three games, and Derrik Henry, who stayed close to neutral. But Conner sports two disadvantages relative to this list: first off, his 7.43% touchdown rate is on the high end of the sample, only exceeded by Alvin Kamara's 8.56%. Second, his yards per attempt of 3.72 are at the bottom, even below LeGarrette Blount. Most alarming, the players who saw the most significant single-season decreases in touchdown rate were Kamara, who dropped 6.89%, and Blount, who dropped 4.86%.
Conner is an exceptional red zone back. Before 2021, his career touchdown conversion rate was 27.5%. Last year his 13 touchdowns in 38 attempts spiked the conversion rate to 34%, leading all backs who saw over ten red zone attempts. If he produces at that career norm on a similar number of attempts, his touchdowns come closer to 10. Eighteen fantasy points or one per game are slight differences, but when they add into his pre-established role as an early-down back with minimal passing game involvement, he slides closer to outside the top 20 backs on a per-game basis. Unless he claims a vastly different role within the offense, particularly the passing game, there are zero error margins on his touchdown production.
This Or That?
Operating off a blind resume creates a stark picture:
|Per-Game Stats||ADP||Rushes||RuYards||RuTDs||Targets||Recs||ReYards||Offense PPG|
All three players have prominent rushing roles within solid offenses. All three players have limited passing game roles. But a dramatic difference in ADP creates vastly different options in team building. Players A and B can be strong contributors in fantasy lineups with deep receiver groups. In contrast, player C is forced into a leading role in roster construction and requires sacrificing top receiver options.
Player A is A.J. Dillon, expected to see an increased role within a Packers offense losing Davante Adams. Player B is Damien Harris, a player often met with hand wringing about uncertainty in the New England backfield. And, of course, Player C is Conner.
Stats and Projections
Conner stands as one of the riskiest early bets in fantasy ADP. To hit on his positioning, he needs to keep up his touchdown production and see a dramatic increase in passing game involvement. The simple reality, in a loaded Arizona Cardinals offense that adds Marquise Brown and has expectations of growth from 2021 2nd round pick Rondale Moore, there is no reason for the team to ask Conner to take on a dramatic increase in responsibility. The more prudent path is a rotation with Darrel Williams and involving the dynamic Moore out of the backfield. You can not always win fantasy leagues in the early rounds, but you can make your odds much harder. Conner is the type of bet you should avoid.
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