Steelers would have been wise to keep James Conner around in 2021

James Conner #30 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
James Conner #30 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images) /

James Conner may not be the long-term answer for the Steelers, but here’s why Pittsburgh should have signed him for the 2021 season. 

After months of waiting his turn, James Conner is officially under contract for the 2021 season; just not with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The former 2018 Pro Bowl running back inked a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals on Tuesday, and he will join Kyler Murray and a young offense that appears to be on the rise.

Regardless of your opinion on Conner, he was a player who was impossible not to root for. After beating cancer, the former Pitt star ultimately became a compensatory third-round draft choice by the Steelers and developed into a starting NFL running back.

Pittsburgh fans don’t need to get themselves worked up over losing a player like Conner. He is what we call a jack of all trades and a master of none, and I have no doubt that the Steelers will be able to replace his production in 2021. However, for what it’s worth, I think it might have been a wise move to retain the veteran running back for one more season.

How Steelers could have benefited from keeping Conner

James Conner isn’t a special player, but he’s still probably better than anyone else the Steelers currently have on their roster. While Conner remained a pending free agent, Pittsburgh signed former Dolphins, Jets, and Chargers running back, Kalen Ballage. At 6’1 1/2” and 228 pounds, Ballage fits the size thresholds that the Steelers typically look for at the position. However, now on his fourth team in as many years, Pittsburgh cannot count on him to be anything more than a bottom-of-the-roster rotational piece.

This means that, without Conner, Pittsburgh’s backfield consists of Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland, Kalen Ballage, and Jaylen Samuels. Because of the lack of talent and investment into this group, Pittsburgh might be likely to take a running back high in the 2021 NFL Draft – something I was really hoping they could avoid doing this year.

With an ever-changing league that is much more focused on the passing game than ever before, running backs have never been less valuable than they are right now. However, because running back is such a big need, the Steelers may overextend for a player like Najee Harris or Travis Etienne with the 24th overall pick. This is much too rich for a position that has been completely devalued, in my opinion.

In comparison, comparable prospects like Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins, and Cam Akers all went in the second round last year. While you could make the case that Harris or Etienne might be slightly better prospects, there isn’t a round difference between these talents.

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The fact that James Conner did not return to the Steelers this offseason means that Pittsburgh could be forced to target a running back much sooner than I would have hoped. While many are pleased that Harris and Etienne are high on their draft radar, history doesn’t support this pick, and running back shelf-life is only half that of other more important positions. The Steelers would have been wise to keep Conner around for one more season.