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Can James Conner bounce back next season?

by Ian Hartitz
Updated On: June 10, 2020, 12:52 pm ET

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2020 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

Last season’s Steelers Offense limped to 27th- and 30th-place finishes in points per game and yards per play, respectively. Of course, this was due to worst-case scenario QB play from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges alike. 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger is expected to be ready to go for Week 1, although it remains to be seen if he will be the same man that threw for a league-high 5,129 yards in 2018.

The good news for the team's running game, specifically presumed started RB James Conner, is the likelihood that this offense gets back to featuring a single RB. The Steelers leaned heavily on their 2017 third-round pick during Le'Veon Bell's 2018 holdout, and Conner responded with a robust 1,470 total yards and 13 scores on 270 touches.

Still, things aren't nearly as clear in the Pittsburgh backfield as fantasy investors would prefer. This could lead to great value if evaluated properly ... or wasted early draft capital if we miss. What follows is a breakdown on Conner's talents as well as what we should expect from the Steelers' group of RBs in 2020.

Conner was one of the league's better RBs in 2018

Conner should be lauded for having a complete enough skill set to stay on the field and handle 20-plus touches per game. He joined Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, David Johnson, Todd Gurley, Christian McCaffrey and Joe Mixon as the only running backs with at least 200 carries and 50 targets in 2018. Conner was also one of just nine backs who played at least 60% of their offense’s snaps during the regular season, a mark which would've been far higher without injuries:

  • Week 1 2018: 92% snaps
  • Week 2: 88%
  • Week 3: 85%
  • Week 4: 79%
  • Week 5: 74%
  • Week 6: 90%
  • Week 8: 79%
  • Week 9: 84%
  • Week 10: 40% (31-point blowout win)
  • Week 11: 89%
  • Week 12: 86%
  • Week 13: 72%

It’s rare to find 6-foot-1, 230-pound running backs who are able to move in space like Conner can. The only RBs who joined Conner in the 50 broken tackles club during Weeks 1-13 were Saquon Barkley and Kareem Hunt, who just so happened to lead the NFL in broken tackles during the 2018 and 2017 seasons, respectively.

James Conner

Only Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara had more PPR than Conner in 2018 Weeks 1-13. He finished as "just" the RB6 despite missing three games. posting 215-973-12 rushing and 55-497-1 receiving lines along the way.

Shoulder and quad injuries would limit Conner to just 10 games in 2019 with limited snaps in several others. Conner wasn't quite as efficient in both the run and pass game, but that was to be expected with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges under center. He still managed to put together three games with 100-plus total yards and a trip to the end zone by Week 8 before dealing with injuries the rest of the way. The likes of Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell were annoyingly involved at different points in the season, although there's reason to believe this won't be the case in 2020.

Tomlin wants to feed Conner the ball

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin pretty much confirmed Conner would be the team's three-down back in March:

"I’m a featured-runner type guy by mentality ... No question in today’s game, a featured runner needs to be supplemented and supplemented by guys who are capable of doing similar things in case he misses time...Usually when it’s going well, it’s because you have a lead dog out front, and that guy is the featured runner. James is a featured guy and proven runner when healthy. We’re excited about him getting back to health and displaying that in 2020."

We've seen the Steelers treat Conner as exactly that when he's been healthy in the post-Le'Veon Bell era.

In fact, pretty much every starting Pittsburgh RB was fed a featured workload before last season:

  • Le’Veon Bell: 25.6 touches per start with Steelers 2014-2018
  • DeAngelo Williams: 22.8
  • Conner: 20.8
  • Jaylen Samuels: 18
  • Stevan Ridley: 17

There's some competition on the roster between Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell and fourth-round pick Anthony McFarland. Still, it seems likely that this will be Conner's backfield during his contract year as long as he can stay on the field and provide at least decent efficiency. Samuels averaged an egregious 2.7 yards per carry in 2019, Snell offers negative pass-game ability, and it's incredibly rare for RBs drafted outside of the top-three rounds to make much noise as a rookie.

Add it all together and ...

Connor should push for 300-plus touches with good health

Conner was the PPR RB9 in Weeks 1-8 before injury. He was one of just 16 RBs with at least 125 touches, while his pass-game usage was equal to that of Dalvin Cook and David Johnson. This was despite splitting plenty of snaps with Samuels and having a Week 7 bye along the way.

Again: this offense was DOOMED last season without Big Ben under center. The Steelers joined the Bengals, Jets, Panthers, Bears and Redskins as the only offenses to average 5.5 or fewer net yards per pass attempt. Only the Panthers also finished the season with more interceptions than passing TDs.

Assuming health for Roethlisberger and Conner are two big ifs, but the Steelers sure look a lot like contenders with some luck. The defense is anybody's idea of a top-five unit and loaded at all three levels. The WR room is stocked with talent (per usual). Four out of five starters return from what was one of the league's better offensive lines before also suffering from league-worst QB play for stretches of 2019.

It's fair to not go out of your way to take Conner as a true RB1. Luckily you don't have to! He currently carries a RB21-23 ADP in best-ball and re-draft formats alike. Even naysayers should have Conner closer to the RB15-17 range alongside similarly questionable veterans like Leonard Fournette, Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon, as Conner's chances for a three-down load and proven ability to post RB1 production should have him easily slotted ahead of the likes of Jonathan Taylor, Le'Veon Bell, Chris Carson, Devin Singletary and David Johnson.

I personally had Conner listed in the low-20 range upon making my initial rankings, but Tomlin's quote and Pittsburgh's unwillingness to add any real true competition to the backfield has made him one of the offseason's more-sneaky risers. Using a third- or fourth-round pick on a RB with featured back history and potential inside of what figures to be a significantly improved offense is something that fantasy investors should be happy to sign up for in 2020.

Ian Hartitz

All things NFL. Great day to be great. You can follow Ian on Twitter @Ihartitz.