With the 2022 NFL Draft in the books and Free Agency mostly wrapped up, it’s time to turn our attention to the upcoming season. Throughout the off-season I’ll be looking at some position groups that featured new additions and could have a new look come September. Today I’m back looking at the Cardinals’ backfield. Last year James Conner exploded and now he’s got a long-term deal, but what does it mean for the Cardinals?
The 2021 Arizona Cardinals
Last year, the Cardinals rolled into the season expecting to feature Chase Edmonds. As a hedge, the team brought in veteran Conner on a cap-friendly one-year deal. It was Conner who ended up exploding, rushing for 752 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also caught 37 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns. Edmonds, meanwhile, struggled some with injuries, but contributed with 592 yards rushing and 43 receptions for 311 yards. The one-two punch helped the Cardinals to a playoff berth in 2021. The question is if lightening can strike twice.
Investing in Conner
This off-season, the Cardinals elected to let Edmonds walk. He ended up signing with the Miami Dolphins on a two-year, $12.1 million deal. The Cardinals did elect to keep Conner, who had an amazing 2021 season. After signing a cap-friendly one-year deal in 2021, the Cardinals committed to the former Steelers’ back this off-season with a three-year, $21 million deal. The expectation was the Cardinals would add some backfield competition, likely in the NFL Draft. But it didn’t play out that way.
The Cardinals had several chances to add another back but made other selections. In the end, the team snagged just one back in the draft—grabbing Keaontay Ingram out of USC with a Sixth-Round Pick. Ingram began his college career with Texas but transferred to USC in 2021. There, he rushed for 911 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
The Cardinals further hedged their backfield bets by signing veteran Darrel Williams. Williams signed a one-year, $1.187 million deal. He likely adds a complimentary piece and some depth. Williams spent the last four years with the Chiefs as a contributor to the backfield. In 2021, he saw significant touches and made a significant impact. Williams got 558 yards and six touchdowns on 144 carries, catching 47 passes for 452 yards and two touchdowns. It makes him an ideal candidate to fill Edmonds’ shoes.
The 2022 Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals weren’t an efficient backfield in 2021 but they were effective. The team finished No. 10 in rushing yards, No. 3 in rushing touchdowns but just No. 22 in yards per carry. Conner was a big piece of that. He was successful in the Red Zone, scoring 15 touchdowns, but managed just 752 rushing yards on 202 carries. That was an average of 3.7 yards per carry. Williams won’t help much with that, as he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in 2021.
Beyond those two, the Cardinals have more backs on the roster but all come with questions. Ingram was a late round pick in 2022, while Eno Benjamin was a late round pick in 2020. The Cardinals also have undrafted free agent Ronnie Rivers and veterans Jonathan Ward and Jaylen Samuels on the roster. It’s unclear what role, if any, those backs could have. Outside of Conner and Edmonds, Ward and Benjamin contributed in minor roles in 2021. Ward had nine carries for 33 yards, while Benjamin saw 34 carries for 118 yards and a touchdown.
Whatever the split, it’s clear the Cardinals’ backfield will once again run through Conner. The only question is whether any other back has value.
Conner wasn’t efficient as a runner but he was explosive for fantasy football. He finished as RB5, due in large part to his 18 touchdowns. I suspect he’ll be the lead back again in 2022, and likely a big weapon in the Red Zone. Still, it’s hard to imagine he has as many touchdowns, making it more likely he finishes as an RB2. His ADP of RB16 feels ambitious. I’d prefer him as a lower-end RB2.
Edmonds finished as RB34 in 2021. Williams, meanwhile, finished as RB20 thanks in part to his touchdown production. I suspect Williams will be the primary complimentary back for the Cardinals, at least in 2022. He’s currently going as RB55 according to his ADP, which makes him the better value for me. I think he can return low-end RB3 value, making him a decent flex option. Of the rest, I’m not opposed to stashing Ingram, but I don’t see any of them providing consistent fantasy value in 2022.
Matthew Fox is a member of the FSWA. He’s a die-hard NFL Fan and Broncos’ Homer. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 or as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a part of the Campus2Canton Network.