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Cardinals RB Conner in prime, ready to carry rushing load

Arizona’s James Conner and a reporter were bantering back and forth after a training camp practice about how many touches he should have each game for the Cardinals to have a successful season.

Possibly 10? 15? 20?

"No number," Conner said. "That would be foolish."

The reporter countered one more time: "As many as possible?"

"My man," the running back said laughing.

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The 27-year-old Conner enters his sixth NFL season as the unquestioned leader on Arizona’s running back depth chart. The bruising 6-foot-1, 233-pounder is coming off a Pro Bowl season where he ran for 752 yards, caught 37 passes for 375 yards and scored a career-high 18 touchdowns.

But like the rest of the Cardinals, he wore down as the season progressed. Arizona started the season with a 10-2 record before losing four of the last five regular-season games.

Conner’s absence was part of the reason for the downfall. He was inactive for two of the last three regular-season games and was clearly not 100% healthy in the team’s ugly 34-11 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Wild Card round.

With that in mind, coach Kliff Kingsbury won’t push him particularly hard during the preseason. That’s easier said than done, considering Conner practices just as hard as he plays.

"You almost have to save him from himself a little bit," Kingsbury said. "He’s that valuable. You saw when he’s on the field, the plays he made in the passing game. Obviously a tough runner. But we want to be smart with him — it’s a long season."

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To keep Conner healthy, the Cardinals would like to find another running back who can split time in the backfield. Last season, that partner was Chase Edmonds, who ran for nearly 600 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Edmonds was a smaller, shiftier back than Conner, and the two provided a good one-two punch.

But Edmonds is gone now after signing with the Miami Dolphins. The Cardinals’ new options are former Kansas City back Darrel Williams and young holdovers like Eno Benjamin.

"I’ve said it a bunch, but that’s when I thought we were playing our best football, when he and Chase were splitting the workload and staying fresh," Kingsbury said. "We were able to maximize what each guy does best. Hopefully we’ll find a similar rhythm this year."

The 5-foot-11, 219-pound Williams is the most logical successor to Edmonds. He ran for 558 yards and caught 47 passes for 452 yards last year in Kansas City.

But there’s little doubt Conner is the top option. He’ll be asked to get the hardest yards when the Cardinals are trying to punch the ball into the end zone.

The hope is Conner can stay healthy for all 17 regular-season games even though he’s at a position known for being extremely tough on the body.

"Nutrition, sleep, just working smarter," Conner said. "I feel great, I don’t even want to talk about getting old, I feel like I’ve got a lot of years left in this league."

NOTES: Kingsbury hopes newly acquired receiver Marquise Brown will be able to practice "next week at some point. I don’t know when, but that’s our hope." Brown, who was a 1,000-yard receiver last season for the Ravens, was put on the active/non-football injury list earlier this week because of a hamstring injury. ... Kingsbury said there was some "tenderness" in QB Kyler Murray’s wrist but the quarterback "threw really well today."


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