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Draft or Pass: James Conner - Are You Going Back to the Well?

Last year, Pittsburgh Steelers RB James Conner didn't repeat his monster 2018 season. Should fantasy fans value him to return to his peak or was 2019 his new trend?

It's never too early to start your fantasy football research, and we here at SI Fantasy want to provide you with the best information possible heading into your drafts. Our "Draft or Pass" video series takes a closer look at a fantasy player that will be debated often leading up to fantasy drafts. Are our hosts targeting this player specifically? Are they avoiding him entirely?

Today's video focuses on Pittsburgh Steelers RB James Conner

James Conner Draft or Pass at current ADP: 44 (RB24)

For years, Le'Veon Bell was the gold standard of PPR running backs with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In 2018, Bell chose to hold out for more money and a long term deal, a daunting task for the vast majority of running backs in today's NFL. The Steelers didn't flinch, and Bell would go on to sit out the entire season.

Enter James Conner, a third-round pick out of the University of Pittsburgh who, in his first season as the starting running back, ripped off 1,470 total yards from scrimmage, scored 13 touchdowns, and finished as the sixth-highest scoring running back in PPR formats.

Regardless of whether it was Conner's talent or the system in which he played in, fantasy owners rejoiced in his performance and drafted him as the average RB6 a season ago.

It almost went according to plan, as Conner scored four touchdowns in his first seven games while catching all but two targets (29 of 31) in the passing game. The rushing attempts were in double-digits every game. While the high volume of rushing yards didn't come until Week 8 against Miami (145), it appeared Conner's goal-line skills and opportunities inside-the-five yard line could still keep him in the top tier of RBs.

But then the injuries came, and after Week 9, Conner only rushed 19 times for 84 yards, catching five passes for a paltry 15 yards.

Conner has made it an even higher priority to bulk up this offseason and get shredded for the hopes of making it through a full 16-game season. Some of us ate "Moose Tracks" ice cream every day in quarantine, but hey, who's judging?

When Conner plays, he produces. He has 2,185 yards and 20 TDs over 22 starts in his career. And as the lead back in Pittsburgh under Mike Tomlin, he will be given every opportunity to deliver. Since 2012, the lead running back under Tomlin has had at least 200 carries in every season. The sample is there.

The critical question is this for James Conner owners. If he can stay healthy, is there any threat from other Steeler running backs to away his opportunities?

Despite concerns that Pittsburgh now has multiple backs that can be featured in their offense, Noah Strackbein of AllSteelers writes how Steelers coach Mike Tomlin still sees Conner as the team's lead back:

I'm a feature runner type guy by mentality," Tomlin said when asked if running back will be a position by committee this season. I think that if you have a featured runner, it gives them an opportunity to drop a stake in the ground and allows others to rally around him. It gives you a set of core phase run plays that he specializes in, and you find a rhythm.

Like our write-up of Browns WR Odell Beckham Jr, Conner was a mid- to late-first round pick a season ago that failed to live up to expectations, primarily due to injury. If healthy, based on Tomlin's comments along with his body of work, Conner should have every opportunity afforded to him to produce and keep his job as the lead back in Pittsburgh.

In a 12-team PPR league, Conner's current ADP of 44 (RB24) lands him as the projected number eight pick in the fourth round. In a contract year, I think the opportunity and volume will be there for Conner before the team likely moves on from him the same way they did for Bell in 2018.