James Conner Fantasy Outlook: Is he a must-start in Week 1?

Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury runs a fast-paced, fantasy-friendly offense. Does that mean James Conner should be in your fantasy football lineups in Week 1?

James Conner will have a role in the Cardinals’ backfield

After Kenyan Drake departed for Las Vegas, the Cardinals signed former Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner to a one-year deal. Conner became a household name in 2018 when he finished as the RB7, averaging 20.9 PPR ppg. Unfortunately, it’s been a rocky road for Conner since then.

Now, Conner is in Arizona, where he will share a backfield with Chase Edmonds. The expectation is that Conner and Edmonds will split early-down work while Edmonds will handle the passing downs and Conner the short-yardage situations.

I’m not here to lie to everyone or display a false sense of confidence. The truth is we simply don’t know how Kingsbury will divvy up the snaps between Conner and Edmonds.

Chase Edmonds has repeatedly failed to capitalize on opportunities

Edmonds is entering his fourth NFL season. Every time he’s been given a shot at being a feature back, something has gone wrong. In 2019, he put up an overall RB1 week and then got hurt. In 2020, even in the one game Drake missed, Edmonds turned 25 carries into just 70 yards — resulting in 11.8 fantasy points that game. Thus, it’s difficult to buy Edmonds as a three-down back.

What will Conner’s role be?

Despite the unlikelihood of Edmonds being a three-down back, he’s still almost certainly the 1A in this backfield. Like every running back, Conner’s fantasy value is tethered to volume. If he’s splitting carries and not catching passes, he’s going to be a touchdown-or-bust option.

Relying on Conner for touchdowns seems like a dicey proposition. First, there’s still the possibility that Edmonds shares some of that work as well. Second, and more problematic, is Kyler Murray’s lethality near the goal line. Murray rushed for 11 touchdowns last season.

The Cardinals have a favorable Week 1 matchup against the Titans

The good news for all of Arizona’s fantasy assets is that the Titans do not have a great defense. Last season, they allowed the second-most fantasy points per game to opposing skill-position players and the seventh-most fantasy points on average to running backs.

The Titans also lost multiple defensive starters such as Jadeveon Clowney and Malcolm Butler. I expect this defense to be worse than it was last season.

Cardinals vs. Titans should be a high-scoring affair

The Week 1 over/under for this game is 52.5, the second-highest total of the week. Both of these teams possess multiple elite offensive weapons. There are points to be scored this week.

With that being said, Conner is certainly not a must-start given the uncertainty regarding his role. He may very well be third on the team in carries behind Edmonds and Murray. Furthermore, the Cardinals possess a bevy of talented wide receivers that will command targets.

In deep starting lineups, where you went Zero RB or Hero RB, you could probably do worse than Conner — he won’t get you zero. However, in standard-sized lineups where you only need to start two running backs, Conner, while not a terrible start, is not someone you should be trying to squeeze into lineups.

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