Commanders’ RB Named Breakout Candidate in James Conner Role

The Washington Commanders overhauled their running game in style when they signed Austin Ekeler in 2024 NFL free agency, but his arrival is not the end of the line for Brian Robinson Jr.

Not when Robinson can play the role James Conner once played for Commanders’ offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury. It’s a prediction from The 33rd Team’s Marcus Mosher.

He believes Kingsbury calling the plays “should greatly benefit Robinson.” Mosher’s reasoning is based on how much former Arizona Cardinals’ head coach “Kingsbury loves to run the ball near the goal line, and we saw that in play in 2021 when James Conner had 18 touchdowns in 15 games. Conner wasn’t even the starting running back for the Cardinals yet produced a Pro Bowl season. Kingsbury favors a balanced approach despite using an Air Raid offense.”

The comparison with Conner is apt because “Robinson isn’t that different from Conner, but he is much more explosive and could post huge numbers in 2024.”

Turning Robinson loose will provide rookie quarterback Jayden Daniels with the balance he’ll need to succeed early in the pros. It will also offer the brute-force complement to the wide-open passing concepts Kingsbury often favors.

Brian Robinson Jr. Can Emulate James Conner

Mosher making reference to Conner provides the ideal template for Robinson’s role in Kingsbury’s offense. Conner carved out a niche as a short-yardage specialist and prolific goal-line back for the Cards.

Finding pay-dirt 22 times in two seasons under Kingsbury shows how much a situational workload paid dividends for Conner. A big part of his success was the ability to fight through crowds and generate yards after contact.

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Conner averaged 7.2 yards after contact against the New England Patriots in 2022, most notably on a 10-yard scoring scamper illustrated by Next Gen Stats.

James Conner had just a 3.2% chance of crossing the goal line when he received the handoff on his 10-yard TD run late in the 2nd quarter.

Conner has averaged a season-high 7.2 yards after contact per carry through five drives tonight.#NEvsAZ | #BirdCityFootball

— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 13, 2022

For the season, Connor averaged a career-best 2.2 yards after contact per rushing attempt during Kingsbury’s final year in charge, per Pro Football Reference. He also broke 27 tackles.

Robinson averaged 1.9 yards after contact and broke 16 tackles in 2023. The 6-foot-1, 228-pounder has the right physical profile to match what 6-foot-1, 233-pound Conner achieved in Kingsbury’s system.

It’s a system that still needs Robinson, even after the arrivals of Daniels and pass-catching specialist Ekeler.

Kliff Kingsbury, Commanders Need Balance

One season with Eric Bieniemy running the offense should have taught the Commanders about the need for balance. Bieniemy had raw and inexperienced quarterback Sam Howell throw the ball 612 times, while the Commanders attempted a league-low 359 running plays.

Kingsbury must redress the balance, something he did with the Cardinals. Despite being a noted proponent of an ‘Air Raid’ passing game, Kingsbury used his aerial concepts to create running lanes.

The tactic was central to Conner’s banner 15-touchdown campaign in 2021. When the back regularly punished defenses with light run boxes.

A great example was this score against the Green Bay Packers, detailed by Next Gen Stats. The graphics show Kingsbury spread the field with four receivers, emptying the line of scrimmage in the process. Conner profited running against a five-man front.

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Facing five defenders in the box, James Conner had a 11.0% chance of scoring a TD when he received the handoff.

The Cardinals have 3 rushing TD vs light boxes (6-or-fewer defenders) tonight, the most in a game over the last 2 seasons.#StatThat | Powered by @awscloud

— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 29, 2021

The Commanders have the same personnel to replicate this strategy. Put wide receivers Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson on the outside, while tight end Zach Ertz and Ekeler line up in each slot, leaving Robinson next to dual-threat sensation Daniels in the backfield.

You’re the defense, what do you do? Play pass first, probably and all but ignore Robinson. A decision opponents will regret if Washington’s third-year back matches Conner’s knack for finding the end zone.

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