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Steelers 2017 Draft Retrospective: Cam Sutton and James Conner rose to the challenge despite injury-shortened seasons

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The Steelers got a twofer in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft thanks to a compensatory pick and added a ton of potential in Cameron Sutton and James Conner. But did they manage to excel, despite both finding themselves on Injured Reserve during the season?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Houston Texans Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

“Incomplete.”

While the word has a distinct meaning in football, I’m going for a more traditional meaning here: not finished, unmeasurable due to an exceedingly small sample size; lacking completeness. Because that definition applies perfectly to a decidedly football-related situation in Pittsburgh: the first seasons for both of the Steelers’ third-round draft choices.

Rookie cornerback Cameron Sutton started the regular season on the Reserve/Injured list due to a training-camp injury, and rookie running back James Conner ended there after late knee injury.

Both, however, performed well enough in abbreviated seasons to make fans and Steelers coaches excited to see what the future holds. And, for both, the future may truly be just around the corner.

But enough looking ahead for now. Rather, let’s look back at how I reacted to the picks initially, and see how it compared to their 2017 performances.

Cameron Sutton

What I said:

[T]here is little chance that the Steelers’ first third-round pick, cornerback Cameron Sutton from Tennessee, will knock Ross Cockrell out of the starting lineup in time for the season opener. He might not do it at all in 2017. But does he have that kind of talent?

Heck yeah.

What happened:

First and foremost, Sutton never had a chance to be a day-one starter, as he wasn’t even on the active roster for the first half of the season. He also never had an opportunity to give Cockrell a run for his money, as Cockrell was traded to the Giants and, ultimately, replaced with Cleveland castoff Joe Haden.Ironically, it was a particualrly well-timed injury to Haden that got Sutton a chance to get into the lineup in the first place.

What I said:

Sutton is a strong man-cover corner to complement 2016 first-round pick Artie Burns on the outside. He can play at the line or off it, thanks to great feet and fluid hips.

What happened:

Call this one a win. Once Sutton got a chance to play, thanks to Haden getting injured and Coty Sensabaugh playing like he’d rather be watching from the bench, Sutton showed exactly why he was a highly regarded man-cover corner coming out of college. He replaced Sensabaugh at halftime of the first two games he played following Haden’s injury, before taking of the starting job for Haden’s final week out of the lineup. He made a few typical rookie mistakes, but mostly played his assignments aggressively and well.

What I said:

Finally, Sutton is a quality return man, with a career average of 14.9 yards per return and three touchdowns. Maybe, just maybe, this is finally the year someone is worthy of replacing Antonio Brown as the team’s punt returner.

What happened:

Perhaps I was a year premature with this prediction, as Sutton never really had a chance to take over return duties in any way. However, it’s been reported this off-season that he is working hard at the return game, and could push for the job this season.

James Conner

What I said:

Conner is a talented runner with excellent size. At 6’-1” and 233, his size and build is comparable to Le’Veon Bell, though their styles are significantly different. Conner is more of a straight-ahead runner, although he showed more moves in 2016 than he has in the past. That’s largely a result of how his body changed due to his fight with cancer, but also a testament to how he expanded his game in his final collegiate season.

What happened:

Conner continued his one-cut style in his first year as a pro, which often seemed to throw opposing defenses for a loop when he was on the field. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry, but never touched the ball more than five times in a single game. His sparing use is certainly due to the Steelers having Le’Veon Bell, although there is a strong chance that Bell has, at most, one more season in Pittsburgh. That means the future could contain a lot more carries for the man who came back from both a torn MCL and cancer in a single off-season.

What I said:

He also catches well out of the backfield and, like Bell, was used all over the formation.

What happened:

Yeah, um, about that...he failed to catch his sole target during the 2017 season.

What I didn’t say but should have:

the only real hole in Conner’s game is his ability to block. It’s hard to tell if he’s just not a stand-out blocker, or if we have just been spoiled by Le’Veon Bell over the last five seasons.

What happened:

If Conner was on the field, there was a strong chance he was going to run. The Steelers really didn’t even give him a chance to block. But, again, Bell is one of the best in the NFL right now at that blocking, so it’s hard to fathom why you would use a rookie in that role when you already have one of the best in the business.