There’s no doubt James Conner’s early NFL career has been a mixed bag. Entering his fourth NFL season - and his first contract year - Conner is the feature back in Pittsburgh’s offense. He has been for the past two seasons.
In 2020, the Steelers offense will get Ben Roethlisberger back. As a whole, the team will be better for it. Everyone wants to focus on how much better the passing game is going to be. The running game, however, is going to be much better as well.
With Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph at the helm, teams could game plan for a more run-heavy offense. Between the quarterbacks, neither was capable of efficiently dropping back 35-40 times a game. This, in turn, allowed defenses to load the box against the run. Defenses sold out against the run and forced the Steelers to beat them with the passing game. Clearly, the 8-8 record speaks for itself.
However, the team’s workhorse running back missed significant time due to injury in 2019. Conner played in only 10 games, barely averaging 4.0 yards per carry. Neither of those figures are ideal.
During the altered offseason, Conner has posted some workout videos and pictures alongside teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster. Conner looks to be in phenomenal shape heading into 2020 knowing what is at stake.
Pittsburgh is very deep into the back nine of Roethlisberger’s career. Defensively, the Steelers have a litany or elite players who soon will need paid. Unfortunately, that means some tough decisions will have to be made.
While Conner doesn’t fall into the defensive category, he is one of the players who is due a contract at season’s end. As things stand, it might be hard to see the Steelers bringing Conner back. Following a Pro Bowl season in 2018, Conner had a sub-par, injury-riddled 2019. He’s been an injury liability throughout his career which should certainly scare the Steelers from giving him a hefty long-term deal. Even a healthy, productive year from Conner could certainly price him out of the Steelers’ range.
Without a clear heir apparent, Conner doesn’t have to look over his shoulder. Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr. are young and relatively inexperienced. Jaylen Samuels may not have much of a spot on the team going forward and Kerrith Whyte seems like he’ll be used primarily in the return game on special teams if he keeps his roster spot.
Considering the way the running back market has trended upwards, Conner could make himself an expensive commodity by season’s end. Regardless of the season he has, it is hard to see the Steelers retaining him. He’ll either out price himself or miss some time and play poorly not warranting an extension. The Steelers selecting a running back in multiple drafts also doesn’t help Conner’s case.
Running backs have become a dime a dozen. Conner’s story and path to the Steelers is one of the best in Pittsburgh sports history but all dreams end eventually. 2020 could be the final chapter of Conner’s in Pittsburgh.
Cody Flavell is a Contributor with AllSteelers. Follow Cody on Twitter @Cody_625, and AllSteelers @si_steelers.