James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie deal. Here’s why the former Pro Bowl running back should not receive a contract extension from the Steelers.
It’s hard to argue that James Conner was worth a third-round compensatory pick back in 2017. Conner, a cancer survivor, bounced back in a tremendous way. After Le’Veon Bell decided to bail on the Steelers in 2018, Conner took the reigns and ran with them – earning nearly 1,000 rushing yards to go with nearly 500 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns.
But Conner’s value in respect to where he was drafted isn’t what’s on trial here. The Steelers need to decide whether or not he is worth a second contract with this team.
Despite Conner’s loyalty to western Pennsylvania throughout his life and the city of Pittsburgh, the Steelers should allow the veteran running back to test the market next offseason. As much as I like Conner’s football character, here are three reasons not to give him a contract extension:
Injury concerns are always cause to exercise caution before handing out money to a player – especially when it comes to the running back position. Conner has never played a full season in his first three years in the NFL, and he’s almost always banged up or unavailable late in the season when Pittsburgh needs him most.
Over the past two years, Conner has started just 22 of 32 possible games due to lingering injuries. These injury concerns aren’t likely to just go away either. Anymore, it’s a toss-up whether or not he’s on the field in the second half of the season.
Despite Conner’s Pro Bowl appearance in 2018, the former third-round pick has only ever had modest production for the Steelers. While he has averaged a respectable 8.4 yards per reception throughout his career, his 4.4 yards per carry are average among the league.
In addition, Conner has proved incapable of handling ‘full-time’ duty and has never averaged over 16.5 rushing attempts per game thanks to being constantly banged up. In comparison, Le’Veon Bell averaged nearly 20 rushing attempts per game over a five-year span with the Steelers. Conner just isn’t productive or efficient enough to keep him around on a big deal.
Running back shelf-life
James Conner isn’t the only running back who falls victim to a short shelf-life at the position. The fact of the matter is, running backs typically begin to take a drastic slide in production after age 26. While some players like Adrian Peterson or Frank Gore are exceptions to the mold, we have already seen a massive decline in younger, former All-Pro running backs like Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, and David Johnson.
Conner isn’t nearly as good as the aforementioned players, and there is no reason to believe that he will outlast them (especially considering his injuries). The Steelers starting running back turns 25 years old shortly after the draft – just one year away from statistical decline. It would be a risk to give him anything more than a one-year deal.
Overall, the risk/reward of signing James Conner to a contract extension hardly seems worth it. Though he is a clear fan favorite, Conner is an injury-prone running back with very modest production and efficiency. The Steelers should look for a younger, cheaper, and more durable option to replace him after the 2020 season.