from Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports NFC West Writer

GLENDALE, Ariz. — James Conner says it’s not about getting more carries this season for Arizona Cardinals.

“It’s touch,” said the bruiser running back. “I feel like I might be able to do some good damage in the passing game this season, especially with the weapons we have on the outside. And I trust my hands. I work on it. So through the air or the ground, I feel like I can to do”.

Last season, Conner totaled 752 rushing yards on 202 carries, including a career-high 15 touchdowns. The Pittsburgh product added 37 receptions for 375 receiving yards and three TDs. Conner believes he can increase his receiving production in Arizona’s dynamic passing game.

“I’m shooting for more,” he said when asked if he’ll replicate his hitting production from 2021. “I just want to win ballgames and do whatever I can. But it’s absolutely realistic. I I trained like no one else this year. I feel like I’m in dog shape, so I’m ready to roll.”

Conner split time with Chase Edmonds last year and signed a three-year, $21 million extension in the offseason while Edmonds went to the Miami Dolphins in free agency. Edmonds had 903 scrimmage yards and two total touchdowns in 2021 for the Cardinals.

Third-year scatback Eno Benjamin, free agent Darrel Williams and rookie Keaontay Ingram will all compete to earn roles as backup linebackers. But with Edmonds gone, Conner is expected to work as the lead back, taking some pressure off Kyler Murray to carry the offense.

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Conner said all the work he did during the offseason was preparing for an expanded role. That work was physical and mental, including daily meditation.

“It’s mostly thanks for what the good Lord has done for me, how far he’s brought me, what he’s brought me and the doors he’s opened for me,” Conner said.

The 27-year-old running back has been through a lot, including stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma during his college career. It’s fair to question whether he can carry the burden of a bell cow, considering he’s never played a full season in his five-year NFL career.

Last season, Conner missed two games with a heel injury and then played through a rib injury suffered in Arizona’s final regular-season game against the Seattle Seahawks. He had just 15 tackles in a 34-11 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

The main goal this season is for Conner to play all 17 games.

“We want to be smart with James, make sure he’s healthy,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “He’s a guy who wants to practice all the time, does as much as he can every rep.”

Kingsbury added that Arizona’s offense was at its best when Conner and Edmonds were keeping each other fresh by sharing the load. The coach will be looking for other backs to step up and replace what the Cardinals got from Edmonds last year.

“You almost have to save him from himself a little bit,” Kingsbury said of Conner. “He’s so valuable. You saw when he was on the field the plays he made in the passing game. He’s definitely a strong runner. But we want to be smart with him. It’s a long season.”

Conner, for his part, looks like he’s looking to carry the load. “When it’s game time, and they matter, I feel like I’m in the abyss, they’re going to let me go because winning is the only thing that matters,” he said.

Can Conner make an impact like Marshawn Lynch did with the Seahawks? Lynch rushed for a league-leading 4,153 yards and 36 total touchdowns from 2012 to 2014 — a stretch that included Seattle’s back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in the 2013 and ’14 seasons.

Like Murray now, the Seahawks had a young, mobile quarterback leading their offense and used Lynch as the engine teams had to game plan for each week. The mercurial Lynch was the angry rusher and tone-setter for the Seahawks.

At 6-foot-1 and 233 pounds, the confident Conner provides that kind of imposing presence.

“When you have that kind of power, it’s very intimidating,” Raiders DE Chandler Jones told the NFL Network of his former teammate, who was recently voted No. 80 on the league’s top 100 players . “Even for a defensive end like me, you don’t want to tackle him. I don’t want to tackle James Conner.”

Along with his physical presence, Conner earns respect from his teammates for his inspirational fight in overcoming cancer, which he wrote about in a book, “Fear is a Choice.”

With Arizona set to host the Super Bowl this year, Conner hopes the Cardinals can make it to the title game, just like the Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers did in their home stadiums the last two Super Bowls.

“It’s been on my mind,” Conner said. “We want to be the team here playing in it. I don’t want to think about anybody else using our locker room, getting ready for this game. This is our locker room. So it means everything to us. And this is what we want to do this year”.

Conner’s performance and ability to stay healthy will go a long way in determining whether the Cardinals achieve that goal.

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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