The University of Pittsburgh has developed somewhat of a penchant for producing All-Pro NFL players despite having a wholly mediocre football program. If All-Pro candidacy was based solely on a player’s work ethic and resiliency, then James Conner would be well on his way to being the next great Pitt-to-pro football star.
There is no doubt that Conner’s story—one that began at Pitt as a three-star recruit and ended there as a nationally-recognized hero who whipped Hodgkin’s lymphoma into submission—is a great one, and one that imbues feelings of pride and optimism in those who watched his career unfold firsthand or from afar. As the next chapter to Conner’s story begins, though, it opens the door to a host of questions regarding the translational nature of his abilities, many of which have no business being asked of a third-round draft pick.
Conner has been erroneously anointed the franchise-back-in-waiting by many fans who do not believe that Le’Veon Bell’s career with the Pittsburgh Steelers will extend beyond the 2017-18 season. Not only is this distinction laughably ambitious, but it also places an unfair amount of pressure on a player who, lest us not forget, was a third-round draft pick and has yet to play a single organized snap. Conner is certainly a talented running back—prodigiously so, in fact, in short-yardage and goal-to-go situations (he scored 56 total touchdowns in 39 career games at Pitt, which is ridiculous)—but he doesn’t come close to exhibiting the multipronged mastery of the running back position that Bell does. Many of Conner’s scouting reports reflect this: “Strong runner, but struggles with diagnosing blocking lanes and identifying blitz packages.” Some have questioned Conner’s consistency as a receiver. Bell’s abilities as a receiver, meanwhile, are nearly unparalleled, and he has distinguished himself as one of the best pass blocking running backs in the NFL.
Nonetheless, the Steelers have little need for a short-yardage specialist. Last season, Bell was among the best short-yardage finishers in the NFL, so it would be lunacy to remove him from the backfield on third-down or near the end-zone. Assuming that Bell stays healthy for the entire season (which would be an unprecedented achievement for the two-time All-Pro), Conner will be lucky to get 50 touches. In fact, it’ll probably be less than that. In the 13 games in which Bell was active last season, DeAngelo Williams touched the football just 18 times. This isn’t a particularly hot take, but Williams was a better running back last season than Conner is right now.
The Steelers do, however, need a player to whom they can hand the keys in the event that things go awry at the top of the depth chart. See, a strange thing happened last season after the Steelers limped away from a heartbreaking loss to Dallas sporting a 4-5 record. You know that scene in Se7en where Brad Pitt discovers the fat dead guy who was force-fed to death? The Steelers, leveraging the principles of gluttony, started feeding Bell the ball at an almost unhealthy clip. In Bell’s first six games of the 2016 season, he averaged 24.1 touches per game, which is an astounding figure in and of itself. Having gone 2-4 during this stretch, the coaching staff decided that Bell wasn’t touching the football quite enough, so they upped his usage to 31.5 touches per game, which, extrapolated to a 16-game schedule, is an absurd and probably unsustainable 504 touches. The New York Jets probably won’t even run 31 offensive plays per game this season. While no backup (unless Pittsburgh is able to somehow draft Saquon Barkley early) is going to get 31 touches per game, the Steelers have, over the past two seasons, opted to ride and die with the no. 2 back. In fact, in the 13 games in which Williams fully spelled Bell over the past two seasons, he averaged—you guessed it—24.1 touches per game.
So, being that we’re in the worst case scenario business, let’s look at the worst case scenario. Let’s say Conner does get thrust into extended action. Can the Steelers rely on him to be Bell 2.0, which, clearly, is exactly what Williams was in two abbreviated seasons of spot duty?
This is the most pressing question that Conner will need to answer in the next three weeks as he continues to recover from his shoulder sprain and eventually enter his first preseason game. I was at camp on the day in which Conner was injured, and prior to his premature exit, he looked good. What he lacked in quantifiable freak attributes he more than made up for by displaying surprisingly soft hands (Conner caught a touchdown during “seven shots” that would’ve been difficult for even the most seasoned receiver) and solid backfield vision. The blocking concerns are justified, but I have little doubt that he will iron those out eventually, just as Jesse James managed to do last season.
Despite missing a couple weeks of invaluable practice time, there are two important factors working in Conner’s favor.
First, he is benefitting from “mental reps,” per Conner’s own admission to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. While this is the sort of all-encompassing term that is usually almost devoid of meaning, it is applicable in Conner’s case, as he’s been able to familiarize himself with the playbook. Of course, the value of “understanding the playbook” is one thing, but successfully utilizing that knowledge in an actual game is quite another.
Second, not one running back on the roster has yet to set himself apart from the remainder of the pack. Terrell Watson was the only back who had any success against the Giants in Pittsburgh’s 20-12 win last Friday, rushing for 44 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, though he is a long-shot to make the final 53. Knile Davis has thus far been what he’s always been, a hulking speedster who occasionally finds a suitable running alley but often finds himself well short of the sticks. Fitz Toussaint has been similarly unimpressive.
What this means, then, is that Conner has not lost any ground in the battle for the no. 2 running back spot. The next step for Conner will be to latch on to this opportunity and prove to the Steelers that he can be whatever they need him to be.