James Conner Proving Everything He Should in Contract Year
As a professional football player, you're going to have your name thrown around for better or worse. In a town such as Pittsburgh, one that practices its religion by preference of 1:00 PM on Sundays, opinions and hot takes are going to come as often as the Pittsburgh Steelers themselves blitz.
Running back James Conner knows this all too well.
Conner's background has been echoed since his arrival in 2017: The homegrown player who endured a tumultuous fight with Hodgkin's Lymphoma saw himself burst onto the NFL landscape following the disappearance of Le'Veon Bell.
As an NFL player, especially one that has reached the success that Conner has seen, you're constantly living in a fishbowl environment where all eyes are watching your every move. Prior to the 2020 season, many considered Conner to no longer possesses big fish stature.
Reasonable? Sure. Conner's health remained a hot topic considering his inability to provide consistent availability, missing six games in 2019 while playing banged up through a handful of other contests. Performance-wise, Conner averaged just four yards per carry and eclipsed over 100 rushing yards in just one game last season.
Conner's stagnant season, added with the promising play of Benny Snell and 2020 fourth-round selection Anthony McFarland, led many to believe Conner was already on his way out of Pittsburgh before a snap of meaningful football was played.
For a lot of noise being made about Conner's exit, the early parts of his 2020 campaign suggest he heard everybody loud and clear. Conner's eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark in the last three of four games, averaging just over five yards per carry and reaching the end zone in matchup following a disappointing week one outing. Although Conner has yet to score via reception, he has caught 12 of 15 targets thus far.
All behind an offensive line that's seen big changes from the offseason to present day, whether it be free agency, retirement or the injury bug.
While Conner's improved performance isn't the sole reason for Pittsburgh's undefeated record thus far, the addition of a consistently talented back such as Conner adds another dimension to a Steelers offense that already presents itself as potent. It certainly helps when the Steelers have yet to lose a game when Conner goes for over 100 rushing yards, going 8-0-1 when doing so.
With a talented running back stable, many believed a running back by committee was set to take place in Pittsburgh in order to keep bodies fresh. However, Conner has taken the lead back role and ran with it (figuratively and literally).
Percentage of snaps played
Conner- 12 catches/15 targets
McFarland- 2 catches/3 targets
Samuels- 2 catches/3 targets
Last Sunday, Conner managed to join some elite Steelers company after finding the end zone.
After producing through the early stages of the season, Conner's beginning to garner national attention, including former Steelers safety and current ESPN analyst Ryan Clark:
"Lost in how badly Baker played, and how stingy the Steelers defense was, is how good James Conner and the Steelers’ run game was to start this game" said Clark on Twitter.
Clark also garnered high praise from teammate Ben Roethlisberger on Wednesday, as Roethlisberger told media Conner was playing phenomenal in all phases of the game.
"I think you’ve seen what he is able to do. I’m going to throw numbers out because to me it doesn’t matter if he runs for 100 yards or whatever he is doing, he is running efficiently, he is scoring touchdowns when we get down close to the goal line," said Roethlisberger.
"He’s giving us first downs when we need those. I think his game right now is at an all-time high. He’s picking up blitzes. He’s catching the ball out of the backfield when we need him to, and he’s getting the tough yards when we need that as well. The thing I keep telling him is to just have fun. When he has fun, he plays great football."
Entering the final year of his contract, Conner was met with doubts surrounding his performance, health and ultimately his spot on Pittsburgh's roster following the season.
Truth be told, there's still work to be done before the above questions have solidified answers. Many people want to see Conner produce for another full season before opening up the checkbook, at least to keep Conner in the Steel City. (For a breakdown of a potential contract for Conner, click here)
That's understandable, even logical given Pittsburgh's current situation regarding depth chart, cap space, upcoming needs, etc. However, while questions will continue to be posed in every facet of Conner's game, he's done nothing but provide answers thus far.