If Bell does head for another city, the Steelers’ playbook will change drastically as long-developing run plays will be kept to a minimum. Conner won’t wait for a play to develop in front of him. No, he’s a pure one-cut back who will put his shoulder down and hit the gap hard. This style of play usually cuts a running back’s career short, as they take a lot of hits, but it’s very effective when you have a brutalizing offensive line that wants to impose their will on an opponent. While drastically different in terms of carries, Conner averaged 4.5 YPC compared to Bells 4.0 throughout the 2017 season.
A Bell departure wouldn’t just hinder the team’s running attack, but would also seriously hurt the passing game. Bell wants to be paid like a top running back and a No. 2 wide receiver, and for good reason (Bell finished the 2017 season 10th in receptions with 85). Conner was only targeted once in 2017, which resulted in a drop.
However, in Conner’s Junior year in college, he showed some ability to come out of the backfield and catch some passes, finishing that year with 21 receptions, 302 yards and 4 TD’s. In no way would Conner be able to match Bell’s ability to line up wide and create serious mismatches, but he doesn’t have to. The Steelers have the receiving depth to be able to keep Conner in the backfield.
We all know how talented Bell is when he lines up as a pure receiver, but what he doesn't get enough credit for is his pass-blocking ability when he stays in the pocket. Conner struggled in protection, and although jettisoned Coach Todd Haley did say Conner was improving, his protection struggles kept him from seeing more time on the field this year.
Conner’s development came to a screeching halt when when he tore his MCL in December against the Patriots. The former Pitt product will need to make a quick recovery and be able to change his body—much like Bell did going into his second year—to prove to the Steelers’ coaching staff that he can be ‘the man’ in Pittsburgh if Bell doesn’t return.
One last thing to note. There aren’t many free-agent RBs hitting the open market soon. Frank Gore and Darren Sproles are getting old. Eddie Lacy and Jamaal Charles weren't very effective. Bringing back Stevan Ridley might be a nice complement to Conner, and he’s got some experience in the offense. The Steelers also have much more pressing needs in the draft than running back (particularly ILB and safety). So, if the Steelers are willing to let Bell go, they have to be 100-percent committed to James Conner.
Conner complements Bell in the backfield quite nicely, and is a great change-of-pace back. With any luck, the Steelers will be able to roll with both players in the future. But if the Steelers do need to move on from Bell they shouldn’t have to look much further than what’s already on the roster to replace him.
Is James Conner the answer if Le’Veon Bell departs?
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