With 922 yards from scrimmage through seven games—including 212 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-18 victory over the Browns at Heinz Field on Sunday— Steelers second-year running back James Conner is on pace for 2,107 for the season.
Those totals may shock you, given the underdog theme of the early portion of Conner’s NFL career. However, as a highly-decorated college football player for the University of Pittsburgh—AFCA First-Team All-American (2014); ACC Player of the Year (2014); First-Team All-ACC (2014, 2016)—they shouldn’t.
Also, let’s not forget Conner was picked in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, a round that normally comes with expectations of a player starting sooner rather than later. But Conner wasn’t expected to start sooner, and it’s safe to say many didn’t figure he’d even start later.
It’s true that it was hard to envision Conner ever unseating Le’Veon Bell, the two-time First-Team All-Pro and the undisputed champion of workhorse running backs, and few did—but not just because of Bell’s impressive resume.
When Conner was selected, the feel-good chapter was the only part of the story people wanted to read. In-fact, some even went so far as to say that chapter was the only reason Conner was picked as high as he was.
I’m sorry, but no coach is stupid enough to select a player in the third round simply out of pity or because of his medical triumphs. There’s too much at stake, too many jobs and careers on the line—including the coach’s.
No, you select a player in the third round because you envision a time—again, sooner rather than later—when he will help your football team in a major way. In Conner’s case, maybe the Steelers foresaw a time in-which Conner would fill in for Bell thanks to a lengthy absence due to injury or suspension.
Did the Steelers ever envision a time when Conner would be their workhorse for an entire season or multiple campaigns? Possibly.
Did the Steelers think that time would come 17 games into Conner’s career? Probably not. Yet, here we are, seven games into the 2018 season, and Bell is nowhere to be seen, while Conner is making history, with four 100-yard/two-touchdown performances, including the past three—all Steelers’ wins.
There are many that are giddy about Conner’s success, especially in the wake of Bell’s ongoing holdout. Those same people want Bell gone simply because. But that’s not a rational desire. Sports stories being what they are, there may yet be a time when the Steelers—and the fans—must heavily rely on Bell’s considerable talents before the 2018 campaign is over.
But I think it’s safe to say Conner has a bright future as the Steelers’ starting running back. Looking at things rationally, it isn’t like he’s going to “lose his fastball” anytime soon. He’s 23, in fantastic shape and still has a lot of tread left on his tires.
As for those tires, they’re not attached to a little engine that could. They’re attached to a high-octane machine capable of great power and speed, as his 2018 season as shown thus far.
If you’re surprised by Conner’s 2018 performance, you shouldn’t be. He’s been showing us what he can do since his days at Pitt.
If Conner didn’t have such a feel-good underdog story off the field, and if he wasn’t following in the footsteps of Bell on the field, you probably wouldn’t be all that shocked by what he’s been able to do this season. After all, James Conner was a highly-decorated college football player who was selected with a premium draft pick.
James Conner isn’t proof that the Steelers can replace Le’Veon Bell with just any running back. James Conner is an exceptional talent, and that’s why the Steelers will be able to move forward with him as their franchise running back.