Who is 2021’s fantasy football comeback player of the year? Each summer there are several players that are viewed as potential breakouts or sleepers but through injuries or other circumstances, things don’t work out.
Usually, these players see their fantasy status plummet the next season but sometimes this drop can lead to an opportunity to buy low. Being able to predict these rebounds is a crucial element towards building a championship roster.
Fulltime Fantasy’s 2021 Comeback Player of the Year is Arizona Cardinals RB James Conner. (Don’t run away just yet…)
Usage in Pittsburgh
A feel-good story for overcoming cancer, Conner was the 105th pick of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Conner was used sparingly in his rookie season but when Le’Veon Bell sat out the 2018 campaign, Conner became Pittsburgh’s main runner.
In his first season as the starter, Conner posted overall RB6 numbers, churning out 1,470 total yards and 13 touchdowns in 13 games. His play fell off in 2019 but a terrible offensive line and injuries played big parts in that, as they have in each of Conner’s four pro seasons.
When healthy, Conner has been an excellent three-down back with solid hands and plus short-yardage ability. When used as a workhorse, Conner really shined. In the six games in which Conner received 15-plus carries in 2020, he averaged 101 scrimmage yards and scored a touchdown in five of the six contests.
According to the Fantasy Index magazine, Conner has actually accumulated 1,310 rushing yards, caught 59 passes for an additional 429 yards, and racked up 13 touchdowns in the past 16 games that he played a full-time role. Those are elite fantasy numbers.
Conner is the kind of back who gets better late in games. At 233 pounds, he’s the kind of back that can be used in the second half to churn out tough yards and eat the clock. But after signing a very modest 1-year deal with the Cardinals, the fantasy community has big questions of just how many touches Conner will command in Arizona, where the incumbent running back is a favorite of the community.
Once Kenyan Drake signed with Las Vegas, many football fans became excited at the prospect of Chase Edmonds becoming a star as the Cardinals’ starting running back. Whether that plays out or not remains to be seen but Edmonds isn’t really built (5-9, 205) to be a workhorse and hasn’t fared well when featured.
Last season, Kliff Kingsbury gave Edmonds double-digit carries just twice and the results weren’t impressive. In those games, Edmonds averaged a mere 3.2 yards per carry and did not score a touchdown.
Edmonds was far more effective when used as a change-of-pace option. Overall, he ranked 6th among all running backs with 68 targets and four of his five scores came as a receiver.
The most likely scenario here is for Kingsbury to keep Edmonds in that satellite back role and insert Conner into the Drake role. If that plays out, not only can Edmonds thrive, but Conner will be in a prime position to also make a significant fantasy impact.
Fit in Arizona
Under Kingsbury, the Cardinals have averaged 20 rushing touchdowns per season. While QB Kyler Murray will run in plenty of those himself, Conner’s between-the-tackles prowess makes him an awfully appealing option to punch in those goal-line runs–a role that resulted in a healthy 10 scores for Drake one year ago.
Conner has also been good in short-yardage situations. Inside the 5-yard line last season, Conner rushed for 12 yards on nine attempts with five touchdowns. Edmonds wasn’t even used in that area, racking up (-1) rushing yards on his line goal-line attempt all season.
When the Steelers needed a single yard to either score or keep a drive alive, Conner was successful on 12-or-16 carries with the Steelers. Conversely, Edmonds had the second-lowest conversion rate of an NFL running back, cashing in just two of his six attempts.
While Edmonds should remain a big part of Arizona’s passing attack, Conner himself is a very good receiver, which allows Kingsbury to utilize both of his backs in creative ways, including with both on the field at the same time. We’ve seen that wrinkle during the preseason and it adds more fuel to the fire of fantasy prognosticators trying to predict 2021 roles.
According to Fulltime Fantay’s strength of schedule tool, Arizona has the fifth-easiest schedule for running backs this season. Under Kingsbury, the Cardinals have been a top-10 rushing offense in both seasons, which included 2,237 yards and 22 TDs a year ago.
Kingsbury also sent a third-round pick to the Raiders to acquire former Pro Bowl guard Rodney Hudson, which helps reinforce what was already a solid run-blocking unit.
There should be plenty of opportunities for Conner to make a weekly impact in Arizona, and he’s in prime position to secure a weekly role with 12-15 carries. He also is in a favorable position to punch in double-digit rushing scores and could even snag 30-plus passes.
That adds up to a strong RB2 season for a running back that is routinely falling outside the top 100 in ADP. And some of the high-stakes FFWC drafters have noticed this potential value, as Conner has garnered seventh-round attention in at least one FFWC draft according to Fulltime’s Advanced ADP tool.
The Cardinals are poised to be one of the most exciting offenses in the league in 2021 and there should be plenty of opportunities for multiple runners to make a fantasy impact. James Conner is poised to carve out a solid role in this attack and that upside makes the fifth-year pro our 2021 Fantasy Football Comeback Player of the Year.
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