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

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Joe Rutter, The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
·3 min read
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Apr. 13—After spending his entire adult life in Western Pennsylvania, James Conner was ready for a change of scenery as he hit NFL free agency for the first time.

He'll get some in the form of the desert, cactus and an endless beam of sunshine. And his new destination is about as far away from the three rivers as an NFL player can get.

Nearly one month after free agency kicked off, Conner was taken off the market Tuesday when he signed a one-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals. He signed a day after visiting with the team in the Valley of the Sun.

It will be a stark contrast to his time growing up in Erie and the eight seasons he spent in Pittsburgh — first at Pitt and then with the Steelers.

"My time there was great," Conner said at his introductory news conference. "It's not a culture shock. My time there was preparing me for this. I'm looking forward to the change. I didn't really have a desire to leave, but certain people talk about being in their hometown, and this is an opportunity for me to grow, for me to be out here to meet new people and to see this side of the world.

"It's something new."

Conner spent his final three seasons with the Steelers as the starting running back, but with the team finishing last in the NFL in rushing in 2020, the Steelers willingly let Conner test free agency. Interest in Conner, who will turn 26 in May, was tepid after free agency began March 17.

A toe injury that Conner said he suffered in an ATV accident and required surgery might have lessened his market value, but he is thankful to get a chance with the Cardinals.

"Felt like the right place, right time," Conner said. "It's an opportunity to come here and contribute to something that I believe is on the rise."

While the Steelers finished 12-4 and won the AFC North before losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs, his new team finished 8-8 and was nudged out of the final wild-card berth in the NFC. But the Cardinals have playmaking quarterback Kyler Murray and a top receiver in DeAndre Hopkins. Conner will join a backfield that is minus Arizona's leading rusher from last year in Kenyan Drake, but contains Chase Edmonds and an array of younger players.

"I can't predict nothing, but what I can guarantee is I'm going to come in and work day-in and day-out, put my head down and grind," Conner said. "I'm in it for the long haul, a 17-game season, and I'm looking forward to it."

Conner has not remained healthy for a full season in his four-year career. In 13 games last year — he missed two because of covid-19 and one with a quad injury — he rushed for 721 yards and scored six touchdowns. He also caught 35 passes for 215 yards.

In Arizona, Conner will be reunited with position coach James Saxon, who held that job with the Steelers in 2018 when Conner rushed for a career-high 973 yards and was selected for the Pro Bowl.

"It will be awesome to link back up with Coach Sax," Conner said. "He's more than a coach for me."

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.

"I've been through things before. I'm going to go through things in the future," Conner said. "The only thing I can do is continue to get my body ready, which is what I do year-in and year-out."

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

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at jrutter@triblive.com or via Twitter .