The Steelers need to be cautious, but if James Conner can redeem himself after a dismal 2019, it would be wise to resign him
When James Conner was selected by the Steelers, his hometown team, it seemed like the stars had aligned for the young rusher. After dominating the ACC and later cancer, the fact he had made it to the NFL was inspirational. Then, with Le’Veon Bell sitting out amid his contract dispute, Conner had a chance to start, where he put up nearly 1500 total yards and 13 TDs. Expectations were high going into his third year, as his promising 2018 should have bled into a dominant 2019.
Then Conner’s injuries sparked up, limiting him to 10 games and a disappointing stat line. Even more to this, of the 10 games he played, he was hampered by injury in two of those, meaning he only saw eight total games where he was, on paper, healthy. These injuries weren’t new, unfortunately, as every season he has played in has led to injuries for him.
This doesn’t mean he isn’t talented though, as evident by his 2018 season. Yes, he was playing behind a good line, but that doesn’t diminish his talent as a complete back. While he is a good runner, he has also proven to be a quality pass-catcher as well as a blocker whenever he was on the field. That kind of complete back is valuable in any system.
He has also proven that he isn’t a bell-cow back though, as the rigors of a typical NFL season tend to wear him down and lead to injuries. This doesn’t mean he holds no value; it just means he has to be used differently.
The prime example is Mark Ingram, who has never seen more than 230 carries in a season. When he was drafted in the first round, the Saints had hopes that he would be a bell cow due to his impressive college career, but injuries held him back. When he was first drafted, the Saints had Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles to split the work, and as those guys transitioned out, Alvin Kamara entered the scene. While Ingram was consistently the most used RB on the Saints roster, he was never seeing the 250 plus rushes a season a typical starter sees.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t a successful player though, as the more limited touches have preserved his body and allowed for some longevity in his career. Just last year, he rushed for over a thousand yards during his age 30 season. Even then, he only rushed 202 times, far less than the 250-carry threshold.
Going into this season, the Steelers have two options with Conner: they decide they don’t want him around long term so they go in business, as usual, giving him the lions share of touches until he gets injured midseason and the Steelers move on from him or they implement a committee backfield and spread the carries around. While Conner would still see the bulk of the carries, he would have a reduced workload overall and it would be evident early in the season when he only rushes 10-13 times on average.
Assuming the Steelers opt for the latter, signing Conner in the offseason isn’t out of the question. The RB market is so deflated, as stars like Todd Gurley could only land a contract for 5.5 million AAV while Ingram himself is only earning 5 million AAV. Conner wouldn’t be higher than either of those contracts and likely would come in around 4.5 million AAV (that would place him between Telvin Coleman and Jordan Howard in terms of value, around the 15th highest paid RB). For a back that could produce 200 touches a season, the value seems to be there.
There is a lot of ifs with this though: if the Steelers don’t run him into the ground and if he can stay healthy in this new role. To be fair, Conner getting an extension is far less likely than JuJu Smith-Schuster getting one, but it isn’t completely unlikely either. The Steelers like to keep their homegrown talent, and assuming Conner can prove himself this year, a cheap contract for his abilities isn’t a bad idea.
Much will be known midseason about this deal. If Conner is still being treated like a bell cow or is already injured, don’t expect to see him in the black and gold next year. However, if he is seeing a consistent amount of carries (10-15 a game) and excelling with them, it isn’t impossible he re-ups next year. It can’t be argued that he is a talented back, so keeping him through this Super Bowl window makes sense. As well, it means the position wouldn’t have to be addressed next year, meaning resources could be put towards other positions instead of RB.
While not the likeliest ending, I believe there is a decent chance Conner finds his way back to Pittsburgh after this season. There are a lot of moving parts to this equation though, and his resigning is far from a guarantee. Assuming his workload reduces, and he can stay healthy in that new system, don’t be shocked to see him back with the Steelers.