Fantasy Fallout: James Conner & Chase Edmonds

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Fantasy Fallout: James Conner & Chase Edmonds

Per Adam Schefter, the Arizona Cardinals have re-signed RB James Conner to a 3-year, $21M deal that includes $13.5M fully guaranteed and bonuses of up to $25.5M. That’s the 9th-most guaranteed money for any RB, and ranks somewhere between 11th and 9th in average salary per year.

It seems Arizona prioritized Conner over Chase Edmonds, who signed a similar contract with the Dolphins. Per Schefter, he’ll be making $12.6M through two seasons, with $6.1M guaranteed. If accurate, this deal would make him the 12th highest-paid RB in the NFL.

Last year, in games both RBs played (more than 1 snap), we see the following splits (on a per-game basis):

So, similar fantasy production for both RBs, but better volume and usage for Edmonds (31% better XFP) and significantly better efficiency — well, definitely in terms of YPC (5.78 vs. 3.85) but not in terms of touchdown efficiency. But this isn’t telling the full story. Because, when Edmonds missed time, Conner produced like a high end RB1 for fantasy.

In the five games Edmonds missed, Conner averaged 16.6 carries and 5.6 targets per game on 81% of the team’s snaps. But that’s better expressed this way, he averaged 23.1 FPG on 21.2 XFP/G. For perspective, if over the full season, both numbers would have bested Jonathan Taylor and any other running back not named Derrick Henry.

On one hand, that’s incredible, and points to a massive ceiling with Edmonds now in Miami. On the other hand, he also appears to be one of the most glaring touchdown regression candidates in recent memory.

Last season, Conner scored 18 touchdowns (3rd-most) to Edmonds’ 2. Conner finished the season 9th in FPG, averaging 17.2, but would have ranked just 22nd with only 10.0 FPG if touchdowns were excluded for all RBs.

Conner also outscored his XTD by 6.6 touchdowns in 2021, which is to say, if he was perfectly average in touchdown efficiency (which should always be the expectation, as touchdown efficiency always tends to regress to the mean), instead of top-3 at the position, he would have averaged only 14.6 FPG, which would have ranked 18th at the position. And in addition to the looming touchdown-efficiency regression, we should also expect (at least) a slight reduction in near-end zone volume, as Kyler Murray was far less the goal-line vulture he was in 2020 — he scored only 5 rushing touchdowns in 2021, down from 11 in the previous season.

Further, it’s no lock Conner will return to that hyper-valuable bell cow-role he saw with Edmonds out. Nor, I believe, should be given credit for his elite production during that span.

Because…

1) When Edmonds returned for the playoffs, he out-snapped Conner 52% to 25%.

2) When Conner missed time, Edmonds was similarly hyper-productive while seeing identical usage. On 86% of the team’s snaps, he averaged: 17.0 carries, 7.0 targets, 22.7 XFP/G, and 20.0 FPG. And this is part of a larger trend with Kliff Kingsbury RBs.

(Bear with me for a second.)

Kingsbury has a long history of employing a bell cow RB, and employing a bell cow RB to great fantasy success whenever he’s lost one of his top two RBs to injury. Here are some examples.

Last season, Conner averaged 23.1 FPG on 21.2 XFP/G across the five games Edmonds missed.

Last season, Edmonds averaged 20.0 FPG on 22.7 XFP/G across the 2 games Conner missed.

In the one game Kenyan Drake missed in 2020 (Week 7), Edmonds played on 96% of the team’s snaps, earning 25 of 26 carries and 3 of 4 targets out of the backfield.

In Week 7 of 2019, David Johnson suffered an injury on his first touch of the game. (This was before Drake joined the team.) And Edmonds totaled 35.0 fantasy points on the back of 27 carries, 4 targets, and a 94% snap share.

The next week Edmonds himself suffered an in-game injury, but had played on over 90% of the snaps up until that point (late in the 3rd quarter).

Basically, in each of the 11 games Kingsbury was down one of his top two RBs, the other RB then always received Christian McCaffrey-like volume and typically to great fantasy success. The rest of the time, Kingsbury’s RB1 and RB2 were returning ~14.8 FPG and ~9.5 FPG (respectively), which would have been good for RB17 and RB40 finishes last season.

So, the big question heading into 2022 is this: will Conner return to that hyper-valuable bell cow role, or will Kingsbury view Eno Benjamin (or someone else), as a near-seamless replacement to Edmonds? And, thus, keep Conner locked into a frustrating RBBC, where he retains his goal-line role, but loses 35-50% of the snaps and nearly all of the passing work.

I’ll be interested to see where Conner’s ADP lands, but I suspect I’ll be betting heavily against a bell cow role. And instead, I do expect to see his upside capped, and for Benjamin to be far more involved than fantasy owners would like.

After spending some time with Kingsbury at the 2022 NFL Combine, this was always Matthew Berry’s expectation, and mine as well. But, of course, though that may be Kingsbury’s preference and plan, if Benjamin — the former 7th-round draft pick with 40 career touches — struggles, Kingsbury may have no choice but to give Conner more (perhaps even all of) work.

Then again, it’s also likely Arizona adds more competition via the draft.

The Ruling on Conner

Conner has legitimate RB1-upside, as he proved last season, but I probably won’t be chasing that upside. I think it’s likely Arizona will add competition via the draft (though maybe not until Day 3), and I do expect Kingsbury to give Benjamin (or a rookie RB) far more work than fantasy drafters would like. I suspect Kingsbury will stick to a committee backfield unless otherwise forced to abandon it (due to injury or poor performance), where Conner loses passing down duties and will thus be easily scripted out of games when trailing. Still, he’s the clear lead back in this offense, Benjamin is a lesser threat for touches in comparison to Edmonds, and the upside is good enough to warrant drafting him as a mid-range RB2… Benjamin has little standalone value (maybe 9.5 FPG in a best case scenario, and assuming Conner stays healthy), but decent upside should Conner go down with an injury. (And has Conner not been one of the most often-injured RBs throughout his career?) He’s someone I’m valuing as a fringe-RB4 in best ball leagues, with a little more value in start/sit leagues.

The Ruling on Edmonds

Kingsbury has a long history of preferring a near-perfectly even two-way committee backfield, unless forced to employ a bell cow due to injury. And Mike McDaniel appears to have a similar preference. But as far as committee backfields go, it doesn’t get much more attractive than the Kyle Shanahan scheme.

Over McDaniel’s last 10 seasons under Shanahan, their backfield has ranked top-10 in rushing FPG 7 times, with only one season ranking in the bottom-16. And they’ve finished top-7 in YPC in 5 of those 10 seasons. Shanahan employs a zone-heavy scheme, which appears to be a good fit for Edmonds, who averaged 5.8 YPC on 68 zone runs last season.

But then again, it’s probably not a perfect fit, as Shanahan’s RBs average only 4.7 receptions per game over this span, which would have ranked only 22nd-best last season. And passing-down usage has been Edmonds’ bread and butter. Over the past two seasons, he ranks just 39th in carries but 10th in receptions. And, over this span he ranks 32nd in PPR FPG (11.1) but just 41st in standard leagues (7.7).

I can see fantasy drafters getting excited about this landing spot, as there’s currently minimal competition for him. Last season, Miami’s backfield combined to average just 3.62 YPC (3rd-worst), with Myles Gaskin (3.5), Salvon Ahmed (2.8), Phillip Lindsay (3.1), and Malcolm Brown (3.8) sitting at Trent Richardsonian levels.

Based on the size of the contract, it seems all but certain that (barring injury) Edmonds will serve as Miami’s “RB1,” or lead the backfield in FPG. But I’m confident we’ll see them bring in more competition, and very likely add a RB on Day 2 of the draft.

So, depending on where ADP lands, he could be a fine best ball pick. But, for the most part, and especially for start/sit leagues, I’d rather wait until April before drafting him, even if that means I’ll have to pay a premium if Miami enters Day 3 without adding another RB.

If Miami does not address the RB position in the draft, I’d anticipate high-end RB2 production from Edmonds. But I see that scenario as highly unlikely, and, instead, Edmonds will handle around 12-15 touches in an absolute best case scenario. I’ll probably avoid drafting him until after the NFL Draft, unless he falls outside of the top-36 RBs by ADP.

Scott Barrett combines a unique background in philosophy and investing alongside a lifelong love of football and spreadsheets to serve as FantasyPoints’ Director of Analytics and Lead DFS Writer.

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