The Steelers have let running backs walk in the past. Here’s why doing the same for James Conner might be in Pittsburgh’s best interest.
One of the great things about the Rooney family is that they allow the Steelers to spend up to the cap limit each and every season. While this helps keep Pittsburgh competitive, not all of that money is being put to good use.
The Steelers have a handful of players who are set to be overpaid in 2020 due to the way their contracts were structured. Mark Barron, Anthony Chickillo, and Vance McDonald combine for more than a $21 million cap hit this coming season, and a few of them could be let go as a result. In addition, Ben Roethlisberger is the second-highest paid player in the league, but Pittsburgh has yet to be rewarded from the rich new extension he signed last offseason.
Each year, Kevin Colbert and the Steelers front office have difficult decisions to make when it comes to contract extensions. While getting a deal done with some cornerstone players is a must, other decisions aren’t so obvious.
This brings me to James Conner. The 2018 Pro Bowl running back has just one year left on his deal, and his starting experience and reputation suggest that he should be able to rake in a solid payday. However, I don’t believe it should be with the Steelers.
Though Pittsburgh doesn’t currently have a long-term answer at running back on their roster, they can ill-afford to get sucked into a massive new deal with Conner. The Steelers are 30th in the NFL in cap space this offseason, and their outlooks don’t start looking much better until Roethlisberger retires.
Conner is a capable running back who has been well worth the compensatory 3rd round pick the Steelers spent on him. However, there is little evidence to suggest that paying average NFL running backs good money is the way to go.
Last year, Le’Veon Bell forced his way out of Pittsburgh after tuning down an extremely generous offer by the Steelers. Fortunately, we dodged a bullet when Bell signed with the Jets. As good as he was in Pittsburgh, Bell was just the opposite in New York – finishing dead last among starting running backs with just 3.2 yards per carry on 245 rushing attempts.
History has shown that the running back decline age is 26 years old and that there is typically a massive drop in play each year after that. Conner turns 25 this offseason, and he has never played more than 13 games in a season in his NFL career.
For pennies on the dollar, the Steelers could draft a running back this April or even next year, and not skip a beat. They also have Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels on dirt-cheap rookie contracts.
James Conner is impossible not to root for, and I wish him the best of luck wherever he goes. However, unless he is willing to re-sign with Pittsburgh at a discounted rate, it should be an easy decision to let Conner walk after the 2020 NFL season.