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James Conner optimistic for his second season, realizes there is plenty to improve upon

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ third round draft pick had an up-and-down rookie season, and Conner looks to overcome adversity yet again.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted possibly the feel-good story of the 2017 NFL Draft when they selected James Conner in the 3rd round out of Pitt. While Conner’s story of overcoming a knee injury, and more notably cancer, has permeated the NFL landscape, Conner’s rookie season carried plenty of ups-and-downs throughout.

The rookie running back’s first training camp saw him watching more than participating, after suffering a hamstring injury which hampered him almost the entire time the team was at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA. However, he persevered and was able to be a part of the active 53-man roster when the regular season rolled around, but things wouldn’t be easy.

Conner struggled with pass protection, something he didn’t have to do much in college, and now realizes this is something he needs to improve upon if he wants to be successful at the NFL level.

“It’s what I was asked to do,” said Conner to Teresa Varley of “It’s not an excuse. I have to get better at that. Every running back loves running that ball. It’s what you do when the ball is out of your hands that also counts.”

This is also what sparked Conner to realize he needs to improve a lot in the passing game, both as a blocker and a receiver.

“I am going to work on every aspect of the game, but mainly in the passing game. You see how valuable guys are. Really every aspect of the game. I plan on coming back year two showing that.”

The truly troubling aspect of Conner’s first NFL season was how it ended — with a knee injury vs. the Patriots in Week 15. Conner wasn’t given many opportunities to carry the ball, but when he did you saw the explosiveness which had him taken by the Steelers in the first place.

The timing couldn’t have been worse.

“It was frustrating when it happened,” said Conner regarding his injury. “They were trusting me more. I was getting carries in the fourth quarter. That is the life of a running back. Injuries happen. My first injury won’t be my last. Those are things you have to deal with.”

Conner is healing up and rehabbing after surgery to repair his left knee. He had injured his right knee before finding out his cancer diagnosis while in college. Nonetheless, Conner views the 2017 season as a huge advantage heading into year 2, just because of the experience he gained in so many ways.

“There were a lot of ups and downs, but I had a lot of fun. It was a good year for me,” said Conner. “I learned how to be a professional by seeing so many professionals work. Learning the basics of getting your mind and body ready for a game. The pounding it takes, the nutrition part of it. Working out, meetings, finding a routine. I have seen older guys do that and it helps them be successful.

“In my running backs room, Le’Veon (Bell) and his routine, his nutrition, what he eats, his warmup before practice, getting his mind locked in. That taught me a lot.”

Conner finished the 2017 season with 32 carries for 144 yards, a 4.5 yard average, and the future of Le’Veon Bell will likely dictate how important Conner will be to the team next season. If Bell returns, Conner will be the No. 2 back who can spell Bell when necessary. If Bell somehow leaves, the job could be Conner’s to lose. With James Conner, he is no stranger to having to overcome adversity, and if you know his story you know the odds are he won’t just overcome adversity, but crush it.