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James Conner Not Taking No. 1 Spot for Granted

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PITTSBURGH — Of all of the players that entered the Steelers 2018 season lacking certainty in their roles — and there were a few — none had a higher level of uncertainty with a lower level of control over the process than running back James Conner.

After an injury-halted rookie season, Conner wanted to put his head down and focus on his craft in order to secure his spot as an NFL regular. But above him on the depth chart, the specter of Le’Veon Bell loomed large. The Steelers’ All-Pro back spent most of 2018 keeping everyone, from the fans to Conner, guessing as to whether or not he would ever sign his contract and report to the team.

While Bell mulled his options, Conner took advantage of the opportunity, starting in 12 games for the Steelers and racking up 973 yards on 215 carries — a 4.5 yards per carry average that equaled his rookie season and exceeded Bell’s 2017 average.

This offseason, the uncertainty is all but gone from Conner’s role on the team. Bell has moved on to the New York Jets through free agency, and second-year back Jaylen Samuels and rookie Benny Snell seem penciled solidly behind Conner in the Steelers’ running back pecking order. Conner will serve as the leader of the Steelers youthful group of running backs, something new running backs coach Eddie Faulkner does not seem concerned about.

He’s essentially a lock to enter the season as the top back on the Steelers’ depth chart, and so this offseason should probably be a lot less nerve-wracking for the third-year pro.

Just don’t tell him that. In his two years with the Steelers, Conner has seen just how quickly things can change in the NFL, so he’s not taking anything for granted.

“Coach T (Mike Tomlin) told us a while ago, he’s trying to replace us every year,” Conner said. “He didn’t mean that in a bad way. He didn’t mean that we’re not doing our job. It’s just there’s always a young buck up and coming. You’ve seen the talent that Jaylen’s got. You’ve seen the talent that Benny has. Trey Edmunds, I rock with him. All those guys are talented running backs.”

Of course, there’s also the factor that the uncertainty that surrounded Conner’s 2018 offseason fueled a pretty successful year for him, so replicating that might be pretty useful. It’s a pattern that Conner has successfully mined when coming to Pitt as an under-heralded recruit and working his way into All-ACC form and then again after coming back from a knee injury and a cancer diagnosis.

“Nothing has ever been given to me, so I don’t expect it at this point in my life, either,” he said.

Conner has been working on his strength and conditioning, and hopes to be able to go harder in addition to the added year of experience.

“I just feel like I’m getting better,” he said. “The more experience I get, the better I feel I can play. This year, year three, I’m a lot more comfortable with things. I feel like I can play a lot faster with that experience now.”

So take Conner’s 4.5 yards per carry from last season, and what happens when he’s stronger, and playing faster? That’s the kind of uncertainty the Steelers can deal with that the running back position.

Steelers

Report: Bud Dupree Files Grievance over Franchise Tag Position

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Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree has filed a grievance through the NFLPA over his positional designation with regards to his franchise tender with the team, according to a report by Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.

The Steelers list Dupree as an outside linebacker in their base 3-4 alignment, but when the Steelers play their 4-2 Nickel defense, which was their most-used alignment in 2019, Dupree lines up as a defensive end.

The difference could be a significant one.

Franchise tags are paid based on the average of the top five salaries of players at the same position. The linebacker franchise tag is expected to be valued at $15.8 million, while the same tag for a defensive end would cost the Steelers $17.8 million, so Dupree’s grievance is over $2 million. Tampa Bay Buccaneers edge rusher Shaq Barrett has filed a similar motion.

Dupree has already signed his franchise tender, so he is committed to playing for the team in 2020 no matter his salary.

Dupree and the Steelers can also continue to negotiate a long-term contract extension through July 15, when Dupree will be locked into his one-year franchise contract, at whichever value prevails.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has repeatedly said that he wants Dupree to finish his career in Pittsburgh, but Rapoport said the sides are “far apart” on an extension with five days until the deadline.

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NFL

Chase Claypool’s Madden 21 Rating Released

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As is tradition, the Madden video game franchise has begun releasing rookie ratings for the 2020 iteration of the game, including for Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool.

Claypool clocks in at 70 overall, which is solid for a second-round wideout. He is ranked as the seventh-best rookie receiver in the game, tied with four others.

Still, the true story with Claypool’s rating requires a little deeper digging. By the look of his attributes, it appears EA believes Claypool will be a mismatch on the real and virtual gridirons this season.

The Notre Dame-product received a speed rating of 92, along with 89 acceleration. At 6-foot-4, 238-pounds, Claypool’s combination of size and speed has Madden players salivating, and hopefully is an indication of what he will provide to the actual Steelers in 2020.

Known for his ability to win high-point balls at his impressive height, Claypool holds the highest jump attribute among all rookie wide receivers at 95.

Claypool also holds the second-highest strength and run blocking ratings in the class at 71 and 56, respectively, which were to be expected considering his imposing frame and elite blocking shown on film.

With regards to receiver specific stats, Claypool received some average, but solid marks. He boasts a 79 catch rating, along with good spectacular catch and catch-in-traffic numbers at 84. Still, his route running leaves some room for improvement with a 73 on short and deep routes, and a 71 on intermediate patterns.

Overall, Claypool’s Madden 21 rating is a strong debut, and his unique skill set should make him a fun player for gamers to utilize all season.

Steelers fans and Madden junkies alike can check out all of Claypool’s ratings and compare him with the rest of the 2020 rookie wide receivers here.

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NFL

Steelers Will Require Fans to Wear Masks, Announce Season Ticket Refund Option

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The Pittsburgh Steelers announced in an email to season ticket holders Wednesday evening they will provide a full-refund option for the 2020 campaign. The team also said that fans will be required to wear masks at Heinz Field if they are in attendance this year.

In addition to offering a full refund, the Steelers stated that season ticket holders will not lose their ability renew their seat locations for the 2021 season.

The organization is still optimistic fans will be in attendance at Heinz Field this year, stating they are “working with both the NFL and public health officials on how fans can attend games in a safe manner.”

While the team would prefer to have the stands full in 2020, the Steelers anticipate “working with a reduced capacity scenario,” as well as the mask requirement. They did not provide an estimate of what the reduced attendance figure would ultimately be.

“Our goal is to still have fans at Heinz Field this year with the understanding that social distancing, as well as all fans being required to wear masks, will play a role in the capacity to ensure a safe atmosphere,” Steelers Director of Communications Burt Lauten said in a statement. “We will continue to work with the NFL and public health officials to finalize plans for fans to attend our home games.”

With rumors that the 2020 preseason slate will be shortened, the Steelers will also refund fans who purchased tickets for any preseason games that do end up being cancelled.

While season tickets are usually sent out in late July, the team will “employ a digital ticketing solution to allow for flexibility” as they and the league navigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are communicating with our season ticket holders to make them aware of the digital ticketing process we will employ this season at Heinz Field for a more flexible solution as we prepare for potential reduced capacity,” Lauten added. “We will continue the process of allowing our fans to opt out of their 2020 season tickets if they feel they are uniquely affected by the current situation.”

Pittsburgh’s update comes just hours after the rival Baltimore Ravens released contingencies of their own for a potentially coronavirus-altered 2020 season. The Ravens plan to limit available seating to 14,000 per game if fans are allowed to attend in adherence of social distancing guidelines.

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