Running back James Conner exits Steelers, signs as free agent with Cardinals

JOE RUTTER
The (Greensburg) Tribune Review (TNS)
James Conner

Nearly one month after NFL free agency began, James Conner has found a home for the 2021 season.

The former Pittsburgh Steelers running back signed a one-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals on Tuesday.

Conner visited the Cardinals a day earlier.

The Erie native and former Pitt standout spent his first four NFL seasons with the Steelers, the last three as a starter. But interest in Conner when free agency began March 17 was tepid.

In 2018, Conner rushed for a career-high 973 yards and made the Pro Bowl. But he hasn't come close to reaching those numbers again as he consistently battled injuries throughout his career.

The Steelers elected not to try to re-sign Conner before free agency, and they will try to address the NFL's worst rushing attack in 2020 by adding a running back early in the NFL Draft.

Conner's numbers dipped to 464 rushing yards in 2019, and he had 721 yards rushing last season.

Conner, though, has averaged 4.3 yards per rush in his career, an indication of his value when he is healthy. Conner had a turf toe injury that required surgery in the offseason, but the Cardinals said the running back passed his physical Monday.

Conner was declared free of cancer in 2016 — he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma — and he returned for a final season at Pitt before being selected by the Steelers in the third round of the 2017 draft. Despite being a high-risk candidate for COVID-19, Conner decided not to opt out last season. Conner reportedly tested positive for covid-19 during the season and missed games against Baltimore and Washington.

With Arizona, Conner will join a backfield that includes Chase Edmonds and second-year running backs Eno Benjamin and Jonathan Ward, plus practice squad player Khalfani Muhammad. Kenyan Drake led the Cardinals with 955 yards and scored 10 touchdowns last season. He signed with the Las Vegas Raiders in free agency.

The Cardinals, like the Steelers, are expected to add a running back in the upcoming draft. The Cardinals hold the No. 16 overall selection.