Should the Steelers re-sign James Conner?

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - DECEMBER 22: James Conner #30 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up prior to the game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on December 22, 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - DECEMBER 22: James Conner #30 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up prior to the game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on December 22, 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images) /

A walking testimony, the courageous of Steelers RB James Conner is to be praised, but future with the Steelers is in doubt for situational & health reasons.

The question tugs at nearly every team, every offseason. Not purely just to re-sign this or that player, because contracts obviously expire every year. However, it’s those ending deals that carry a bag of emotions between the management/coaches & players, and the Steelers will have a tough one of its own.

In hindsight, it’s traumatizing the bonds that are broken in a vanish in these relationships. A process that starts with “bring your playbook” and may take no longer than a walk-out to the stadium, leaves a lingering feeling of distress.

An awe-inspiring recovery to a miraculous comeback on the field, Steelers RB James Connor’s future in Pittsburgh appears hazy. Although a high-level talent, the situation & physicality may have taken its toll if Steelers’ fans are wishing for his return.

A Foreshadowing by the Steelers

The demands will be entirely different, but if anyone is familiar with a nerve-wracking negotiation for an RB’s 2nd contract, it’s Pittsburgh. To condense it all, New York Jets RB Le’ Veon Bell found out the tough way that the league’s prioritization for even the cream of the crop at the position is dramatically decreasing in large part to analytics.

For starters, the talent pool is too deep. It’s nothing wrong in having the bell-cow back, but the Steelers realized James Conner as a successor to Bell will suffice and were proven correct at a way cheaper price. Since Bell’s absence in 2018, Conner has rushed for 16 touchdowns in 22 starts along with 4 receiving touchdowns, while averaging 4.3 yards per carry.

In relation to Conner, his share of missing games from various injuries forced the Steelers into a running-by-committee role that has exposed the replaceability, if need be. While James led the team in 2019, in rushing yards per game, attempts per game, yards, & rushing touchdowns, other names proved themselves viable. Teammate Benny Snell wasn’t too far behind in his 108 carries to Conner’s 116, and ran for 426 yards (464), averaged 3.9 YPC (4.0), had 2 touchdowns (4), while only starting in two games as compared to Conner’s 10.

The mid-season addition of Kerrith Whyte also gave the Steelers a different gear out the backfield, leading the group with 5.1 YPC on his limited attempts, which could be improved on with better playcalling & rotation.

Snell isn’t the one that people would look to and throw him with the upper echelon, but he did his job well enough that could serve as depth for the future. A free agency that yearly has someone available that is serviceable to create a nice one-two punch or a draft filled with RB prospects that won’t require Pittsburgh to reach for a top name, the position itself has already put Conner’s extension at a risk.

An Ugly & Saddening Effect

Though Conner has elevated his name in the NFL ranks, the one threat to his story is beginning to overshadow it all. At the University of Pittsburgh, Conner appeared in 39 of his 52 games due to a torn MCL as a junior, and shortly after was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma cancer. A survivor that faced his toughest challenge yet, the physical effects are looming heavily.

James explored the process in his intimate reflection on ThePlayersTribune’, describing that “the 11 weeks between being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s and receiving treatment six, everything about my life, my identity and my future had been transformed” and that before the nightmare of cancer introduced itself, “I felt like nothing or no one could stop me at that point. On the field. In my element”.

And he was right. ACC Player of the Year, the all-time conference leader in rushing yards & touchdowns, All-American, and the list flows on, it was why the Steelers saw the potential benefits outweigh the risk after picking him in the 3rd-round in 2017. Nearly a top-100 pick, GM Kevin Colbert & co. understood the physicality for Conner wouldn’t be exactly near the form as when he was at Pitt, but the ride now is starting to take its toll.

It’s the bullseye reason why front offices around the league are losing confidence in giving RBs a second-contract. The durability over time as they enter their late-20s rarely ever continues to live up to what they accomplished when they first entered the league.

Although Conner hasn’t been the back averaging 300+ carries a season for the Steelers, his most beautiful triumph of life will be his most hindering obstacle in convincing not only the Steelers to re-sign but perhaps any other team in the league. Someone will love the chance for his talent, however, the numbers for whatever projected money won’t be pretty and might not be more than what he’s making now.  

For someone who left early or missed multiple games this year alone off of a shoulder, thigh, knee, ankle, & quad injury, how long does empathy have its place? To be clear, that’s not why he’s on the field, but you want someone like Conner to win not only on the gridiron but in life.

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The departure will be extremely tough. Conner deserves everything well and is a walking testimony of inspiration for anyone who has similarly struggled. Left out a backfield with Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Kerrith Whyte, & an off-season that’ll have a plethora amount of options, Conner will be outdone by what has been his biggest miracle and be without the Black & Gold in 2020.