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.
— James Conner (@JamesConner_) May 27, 2019
“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.