For the moment, let’s put James Conner’s remarkable, made-for-TV story to the side. I’m not downplaying what this young man has overcome in life but, for the rest of this article, I want to talk about one thing — football.
Conner, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ compensatory third-round draft pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, joins a stable of running backs led by the most elite and versatile player at this position in the NFL, Le’Veon Bell.
Those Steelers fans who register pulses and follow the team on a weekly basis know quite well how the Steelers handle the running-back situation. I’ll break it down simply for you:
Le’Veon Bell doesn’t come off the field . . . . ever.
Some NFL teams have short-yardage backs, third-down backs and some who resemble wide receivers more than running backs. For Pittsburgh, Le’Veon Bell fills all of those roles.
Think back to the San Diego game in 2015 with Bell in the Wildcat. Yeah, he can handle short yardage situations. As a receiver, Bell’s hands are almost second to none and he’s more than capable at blitz pickup duties on obvious passing downs. He truly can do it all.
Now, back to the matter at hand—the question of how James Conner fits into the Steelers’ offense.
With the team not showing any real interest in bringing back DeAngelo Williams, and barring injury, it seems pretty clear cut that the Steelers are prepared to go into 2017 with Bell, Conner, Knile Davis and possibly one other running back not named Roosevelt Nix, because he’s a fullback.
Everyone witnessed DeAngelo Williams performing up to the standard to start both the 2015 and 2016 seasons in Bell’s absence. When Bell returned, though, it was all Bell, all the time. In fact, when Bell was healthy, Williams never carried the ball more than 8 times in a game, including the postseason. Williams averaged just 2.3 carries a game in 2016, when Bell wasn’t suspended or injured.
So, what is the plan for Conner? Are they simply grooming him to be a contributor in subsequent years? Will he primarily be a special-teams player as a rookie, as Kevin Colbert alluded to in his post-draft press conference? Or will he actually see time in the backfield in 2017?
All are questions which can’t be answered now, and possibly won’t be answered until the regular season begins. One thing is certain though. If Conner can return to his 2014 self (i.e. the pre-cancer, pre-knee-injury version), the Steelers would have one heck of a dynamic duo in their backfield.
Is it possible the Steelers give Bell a rest from time to time and allow Conner to get a series or two of work on a regular basis? It’s hard to fathom the team would do that with a rookie when a trusted veteran, DeAngelo Williams, had been relegated to clipboard duties when Bell was healthy and in the lineup.
There are many aspects of the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers which will be worth watching as the offseason and training camp unfold. But how they utilize the bruising James Conner will be near the top of my watch-list. Do they run the wheels off Bell, or do they give Conner a chance to prove his worth in his rookie season?
Only time will tell . . .