Arizona Cardinals position grades: James Conner ensured running backs aced the test

The Arizona Cardinals may have finished 4-13 this season, but despite the poor record, they had one of the best running back units in football.

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals
San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals / Christian Petersen/GettyImages
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It’s not every day that you can claim a 4-13 boasted a remarkable position group, as four wins often mean the team was awful. But for the Arizona Cardinals, their group of running backs was anything but, with James Conner leading the way. 

It may have taken Conner seven seasons, but he finally hit the 1,000-yard club by rushing for 1,040 yards and an incredible 5.0 yards per carry. It only took Conner 13 contests to reach the 1,000-yard mark, however, and had he been healthy for all 17 games, he would have finished with 1,360 yards on the ground, with nine touchdowns as opposed to seven, assuming he kept up the same pace. 

But the reality is, Conner has always been an injury-prone back, and he’s never appeared in over 15 games in any of his seven seasons, three of which had occurred in Glendale. When he went down with a knee injury, however, a rookie running back named Emari Demercado played a huge part in keeping the running game afloat. 

Arizona Cardinals running backs aced the test in 2023

Demercado was forced into action when Conner went down in Week 5, and he played well in the subsequent games, gaining 192 yards on 45 attempts and a touchdown between Weeks 5 and 8 before he went down with his own injury. He was used in a limited role following his return in Week 12, but he still gained an additional 89 yards and a touchdown on nine carries between Weeks 12 and 18. 

The only real blemish on the Cardinals rushing attack in 2023 came in Week 9 against the Cleveland Browns when the unit gained just 41 yards. However, Keaontay Ingram and Tony Jones were forced into the roles, and neither fared well. Ingram was later released while Jones was nothing more than a practice squad talent. 

This left Conner and Demercado as seemingly the only two viable backs for the Redbirds until they claimed Michael Carter. Carter saw action in six games, and he proved to be a massive upgrade over the ineffective Ingram with 149 yards on 22 attempts, which further helped the Arizona Cardinals receive an easy ‘A’ for the season at the position.

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(Statistics provided by Pro-Football-Reference)