2017 Player Stats:
|2017 Regular Season||32||144||4.5||0||0||0|
James Conner was a legend long before he was drafted in the third round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Prior to his junior year at the University of Pittsburgh, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, discovered while rehabilitating a torn MCL that year. Conner’s story of overcoming cancer and being drafted has transcended the confines of sports culture and inspired a nation.
Even with the holdout of All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, it was a foregone conclusion coming into training camp that Conner was competing for a backup spot against free agent signees Knile Davis, Terrell Watson, Trae Williams, as well as third-year backup Fitzgerald Toussaint. His preseason debut against the Atlanta Falcons, in which he accounted for 98 yards on 20 attempts, helped set him apart from the rest of the pack. Though Conner did not play the last preseason game against the Carolina Panthers, he did enough to establish himself as Bell’s backup running back for the 2017 season.
Though Conner played in only a handful of games in certain situations, he definitely made the most of the opportunities that were given to him. He did not deviate from his power running style that helped define him while at Pitt. What remains to be answered about Conner during the offseason will be his ability to diversify his skillset in order to become a consistent contributor on offense.
Pros and Cons
Conner is a power back in the purest form and he does not hide it. His running style is reminiscent of what Bell’s style looked like in his rookie season. He does not have great breakaway speed (timed at 4.65 s during the NFL combine), but accelerated hard when an open hole presents itself. The other noted aspect of Conner is his ability to take physical contact and continue onwards. Every yard that he gained this season were not easy ones, this is expected with a runner that is accustomed to running a north-south style. As seen in this clip below, Conner takes the handoff and hits the hole hard. Along the way, he meets contact with a Cincinnati Bengals defender. As with the case with any good power back, Conner takes the contact and keeps his legs moving, until he is able to get the first down.
The challenge with Conner is the fact that he has become too accustomed to this style of running. One of the noted weaknesses in his draft profile concerned his lack of lateral movement. Due to limited agility and lateral movement, his running style has a tendency of becoming too predictable; thus defenders after a while are able to adjust. The other downside to his running style is the toll that it could take on his body long term. During the Steelers game against the New England Patriots in December, Conner suffered a MCL ligament sprain in which he had successful surgery to correct it. This type of injury is one of many reasons why he must find some manner in adding other dimensions to his style.
The other challenge this season with Conner was speed. Conner does not possess breakaway speed; thus at times he found himself gaining less yards than he should . In this particular example against the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers offense beautifully ran a counter led by All-Pro guard David DeCastro. Conner to his credit ran exactly the way he should and hit the hole hard. Though he was able to get outside and get the first down on this play, with the hole that was opened, Conner could have gained substantially more if he had breakaway speed to do so.
Moving Forward For Conner
Though Connor saw limited action this season, much of what was seen with him was positive. The Steelers organization made the right choice in making him Bell’s backup, as he proved that he is very capable of playing this role. This offseason, it will be about taking that next step in improving his areas of weakness; notably his lack of agility and lateral movement. At this point, one should not be so quick to anoint Conner as Bell’s successor if he were to leave. He still has a long way to go in order to become a complete running back. Yet from what he demonstrated this season, he is definitely on the right track.