James Conner: Workhorse or part of RBBC? – J. Salmeri

by Joe Salmeri

James Conner is someone who has persevered one the of the worst things a human being can go through. In 2015 the Pitt running back was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a deadly but treatable form of cancer. Conner showed cancer couldn’t slow him down, in 2016 Conner rushed for over 1000 yards in his final season of his college career. This led to Conner being drafted by the Steelers in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL draft. Conner had a year to sit behind arguably the best back in football (Le’Veon Bell). After the 2017 season concluded Bell sat out the rest of the 2018 season, and the rest is history.

Conner proved he could fill Bell’s shoes and then some, totaling 1470 scrimmage yards and 13 touchdowns, earning himself an AFC pro-bowl selection. There is no question that Conner has the talent to be a workhorse back for the Steelers. The question here is can Conner’s durability holdup through can a 16-game season.

Conner only finished 13 games on the season as he was sidelined with minor injuries. This opened things for Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels who also showed that they were capable to do the job out of the back field for the Steelers. When Conner was healthy, he received around 90 percent of the snaps out of the backfield, only coming out when he needed a breather. After Conner finished the season dealing with an ankle injury, there have now been talks of using a committee approach much like we see teams like the Eagles and Patriots do, for example.

The Steelers also invested high draft capital in getting running back Benny Snell Jr. out of Kentucky (round 4, pick 20) who has shown he may have the talent to be a productive workhorse back for the Steelers much like Conner did. In recent interviews at the Steelers OTA’s all the backs like Conner, Samuels, and Snell were using words such as “we” and “our” when describing how the backfield is shaping up for the 2019 season, hinting at a running back by committee approach.

In order to get a better understanding of what the most realistic outlook is for the Conner lets go back to 2015 when DeAngelo Williams became the “bell-cow” back when Le’Veon Bell was hurt. In 2016 the story was the same as well as Williams was again the “bell-cow” back when Bell was not available for the first three games of the season. Now in 2019 we are supposed to believe that the Steelers are going to suddenly adopt a full on running back by committee approach. Personally, I don’t see that completely happening unless the Steelers are going to change their whole offensive philosophy which is feeding their best available running back the ball more so than the guys behind him.

Conner’s durability may be some what in question and that may be the reason why there are even talks about a committee in the first place, since Conner showed he was one of the most effective backs in the league even when he faced stacked boxes just as much as any other back in the league. There is no denying that Snell and Samuels are very talented backs as well.

However, historically speaking, Tomlin has shown that he likes to trust one guy to carry the load for him out of the backfield. I believe the most realistic situation for the 2019 season is that Snell and Samuels will cut into Conner’s workload a bit more than last season, so we could potentially see his snap percentage go from 90 percent down to about 75 percent. But I do not see the Steelers suddenly adopting a full on running back by committee approach, unless Conner’s health and durability are really in question, which I don’t think they are. Early reports indicate that Conner looks even stronger than last year and is healthier than ever.

Conner still finished as running back six in PPR scoring formats, even when missing the last three games of the season. This shows that Conner is highly effective behind a great Steelers offensive line. Even if Conner’s snap share decreases to around 75 percent, which I believe is the most likely situation after hearing talks of a committee approach, you are still getting a reliable and effective low end running back one on an offense that generally scores a lot of points. We will know more as the offseason progresses, but as of right now I would still take Conner in the back end of round one or early round two. If Conner shows he is healthy in the pre-season you are getting a guy that should put up running back one numbers on a weekly basis, even if his snap percentage drops 15-20 percent.


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