James Conner exited Week 5 with a knee injury after tweaking it in the second quarter. Losing the league’s third-leading rusher is no easy task to replace, but an unheralded and undrafted rookie stepped up in his place.
Enter Emari Demercado.
“I actually thought Emari came in and played well,” Jonathan Gannon said postgame. “He had a couple of runs in there, but obviously when you lose one of your best players, that hurts. But we’ve got to carry the load for him. I thought Emari did a good job.”
Over the first three weeks, Keontay Ingram handled early-down RB2 duties (along with a pathetic 1.3 YPC average), but he was inactive on Sunday, leaving Demercado as the team’s three-down horse after primarily playing on third down. He stepped up by rushing for 45 yards on ten carries and notched his first career touchdown. He played every single running back snap (44) with Conner out of the game.
With Conner not feeling healthy enough to return, that makes Demercado a top fantasy Week 6 waiver wire pickup — whether it’s just a one-week stream or a stash moving forward.
UNDER-THE-RADAR, 5-YEAR COLLEGE PLAYER
Demercado began his career at a JUCO, earning All-American honors after posting an impressive 54 receptions in his lone season.
Then, his career really began when he transferred to TCU. After being a part of a messy committee for his first three seasons, where he did not crack 60 carries in a year, he sort of “broke out” in his fourth year with 446 yards on 96 carries. But, as a super senior, he worked behind Kendre Miller, setting career highs with 681 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 121 carries. He also added 13 receptions for 65 yards.
Demercado burst onto the scene in the College Football Playoff against Michigan, where he took over for an injured Miller. The fifth-year back sliced through the nation’s top rush defense to the tune of 150 yards and a score on only 17 carries.
Demarcado proved in his final year that he could produce at a high level behind a clear RB1, making him an intriguing player with limited tread on his tires (338 carries). His blend of size, speed (4.49 40-yard dash and 83rd percentile speed score), and reliable hands made him a priority-free agent after going undrafted.
Luckily for the former Horned Frog, he landed in an Arizona backfield with little upside behind Conner — giving him a real shot to make the roster and move up the depth chart.
REST OF SEASON OUTLOOK
Demarcado is a bigger back (5-foot-10, 215 lbs) who can make plays in the passing game and as an early-down runner — similar to James Conner. As a result, the Cardinals did not have to change up its scheme once Conner exited the game.
“I think we have all that skillset,” Demercado said. “Maybe James is more of a downhill runner as a bigger guy, but I think we can handle the same things. We don’t have to switch the scheme up.”
It’s clear Gannon and the offensive staff trust the undrafted rookie, as he accounted for every single snap with Conner sidelined. His skills as a pass-catcher and pass-protector on third down allow him to be a true three-down back.
“He stepped up well, in that aspect of picking up the running game,” Josh Dobbs said about the rookie. “I know he’s been emphasized in the pass game a little more thus far, but that was huge to see him come in and step in. When you lose James that’s tough, but I thought, again, the response by Emari to step in and take on a bigger role and not flinch was really good.”
Considering Gannon said Conner feels “okay” after his injury and returned to the sideline with his helmet, he may not miss significant time — if any. However, Demercado will be a top handcuff moving forward behind the oft-injured vet. He also possesses ‘handcuff with benefits’ upside due to the Cardinals’ trailing game script and his pass-catching role. He also proved he can carry the load, which should only give him more time moving forward.
Even if Ingram returns from his neck injury, Demercado is the running back to target in this offense and could be a valuable streamer this week — assuming Conner sits out Week 6.
Keep tabs on The Wolf’s Week 6 Rankings and Rest of Season Big Board to see where he slots the intriguing rookie.