Running back has always been a position of importance in the hearts of the Pittsburgh faithful. From Bettis to Bell and all the Willie Parker’s in between, the position has been of the utmost importance in an offence that historically pounded its way to championship winning seasons.
But, as the game evolved and running backs have moved away from the traditional inside the tackles ground and pound approach, a new breed of backs emerged. Enter Le’Veon Bell. Vision, patience, WR caliber hands and route running coupled with a toughness and ability to truck an ill prepared linebacker created a devastating run game that allowed Big Ben and the Steelers passing game to flourish.
We know the ending to this chapter. Bell sits out and then leaves, creating a gap in one of the most important spots in the offence. But fate was due to intervene. James Conner, a third-round draft pick from Pittsburgh itself, a cancer survivor and Bell’s back up in 2017 took the reigns and quite literally ran with his opportunity. In only 13 games (an important point – remember it) Conner achieved just under 1000 yards, 12 TD’s, 4.5 yards a carry and averaging over 70 yards a game; rounding out a fantastic sophomore season that gave Steelers fans a solid hope for the next few years and a true hometown hero to cheer for.
So, what happened in 2019? Fantasy players and real life supporters alike suffered through a season of injuries, sluggish running and an inability to break through arm tackles from what looked to be the next bright star in the Steel City. He was still a factor in the receiving game – securing 34 catches on 38 targets and nearly 300 yards (in 10 games with no viable quarterbacks) and seemed to be able to brush through those tackles after those catches.
The issue here, as with JuJu Smith-Schuster (see my previous article), was staying healthy. Conner only managed 10 games this year – dropping out in a couple more – in an anemic offence that should have lent itself to a big season for a feature back. He still has not completed a whole 16 game season as a Pittsburgh Steeler. He suffered thigh and AC joint injuries that belied the workload of the previous season and as mentioned before, just could not be the same bruising running back we saw in 2018 with those particular injuries:
|Games||Carries||YAC (yards after contact)||Broken Tackles||Attempts per BT|
We love stats – so let’s compare those to Conner’s back up, Benny Snell Jr.
|Games||Carries||YAC (yards after contact)||Broken Tackles||Attempts per BT|
Snell looked powerful, decisive and willing to power through the interior of the line over and over to gain those “tough” yards. Snell did not push himself as a receiving threat out of the backfield – this role seemed reserved for Jaylen Samuels, but he did show that he could handle the load.
So. What happens now? Really, there are only three legitimate options – return, replace, restock. I will be looking at options in the draft next week, and therefore limit the options to what free agency can provide. Let me spin you three tales from the Steel City…
Conner is moving into the last year of his rookie contract and will have the bit between his teeth to prove a point. In 2018 he was a devastating cannonball of a running back who bowled his way into the Pro Bowl and made us all forget the absence of Bell. With Benny Snell in situ as a capable back up and Jaylen Samuels as a threat out of the backfield the Steelers should see themselves as set for the future at the position. When he is healthy, Conner is the unquestioned starter and fairly so. When healthy, he is the perfect back for this scheme – powerful, great hands and good vision with one of the top run blocking lines in the NFL. Keep him in place, get Big Ben back and watch the Steelers roll into the playoffs once more.
The cynical among us demand a change. Conner can’t stay healthy and an aggressive, young running back is waiting in the wings to take over with a similar rushing skillset. So why are are the Steelers hesitating? Running backs are a dime a dozen with the right offensive line and hanging a hat on hometown good feeling and one good season isn’t the smart move. Paying Conner after the 2020 season is going to be a risk reward scenario that will result in money tied up in a constant injury risk. Give Benny Snell Jr the keys to the running back position and allow Conner to spell him to close out games. Then wait until Benny runs out his welcome, use the fourth round back we will probably draft in 2021 and repeat. We all want to see more of that spinner mouthpiece anyway…right?
Harsh? Definitely. Practical? Probably.
Conner is an injury risk, Snell is a one dimensional back with a stupid mouthpiece that tells you when he’s tired because it spins faster and Jaylen Samuels couldn’t beat out a practice squad back for consistent snaps.
The formula seems simple. Conner and Snell are cheap back ups and with a restructure of Roethlisberger’s contract, sorting out Dupree, Hilton and Hargraves contracts and some harsh cuts (Mark Barron, Vance McDonald, Anthony Chickillo, Tyson Alualu), Pittsburgh can create around $20 million (taking into account rookie reserves) and sign a big-name free agent running back to lead the backfield and bring Big Ben another ring in what looks to be the twilight of his career.
Enter Melvin Gordon. If Gordon hits the open market, he’s likely to find it difficult to break that $10 million/season bracket that he so desires, but the Steelers could afford to challenge his suitors. Yes, it’s a massive investment for a team that doesn’t generally make splashes in free agency, but a back like Gordon could turn the Steelers into a true challenger to the ascendant Baltimore Ravens. Teams would be forced to load the box to stop Gordon hitting the perimeter and powering through the second level, leading to more cushioned coverage on the likes of Smith-Schuster and Johnson and more space to make those game changing catch and run plays.
Want a cheaper option? Why not Kareem Hunt? The Browns have a starting running back that takes the majority of the snaps and Hunt was a low cost back up that led the league in rushing two years previous. He was a relative success in 2019, running hard and lining up as a receiver in multiple sets to create mismatches. Sound like anyone the Steelers might remember?
Okay then. Three well positioned and rational arguments from three completely separate humans (probably). Personally, I’m in love with idea of Melvin Gordon suiting up in black and gold in 2020, but in all likelihood, we’re not seeing a change in the Steelers backfield. Conner is a top 15 running back when healthy, and Snell/Samuels proved themselves capable of moving the ball when called upon. Change is fun and dynamic, but the issue wasn’t how good Conner and friends were, it was how many times they could get on the field.
Fantasy implications in 2020
Let’s look at the fantasy scenarios for all three options. This is a fantasy based website and podcast after all.
Return – Draft Connor in the second round for a decent value over the year. He may miss a few games but should deliver on that draft position. If you can pick up Snell in the later rounds as a handcuff, then definitely do so.
Replace – Snell would project as a third or fourth round pick at this point due to his lack of receiving skills. Yes, he can pound the ball, but those in PPR leagues could find better value with a back that attracts more targets. Pick up Connor as a mid-round steal if Snell is announced as the starter.
Restock – This one is the easiest. If a big name free agent like Gordon or even Kareem Hunt finds his way to Pittsburgh in 2020, they become a first-round pick immediately. With proven production and a great O-line, a player like Gordon or Hunt could feast in the RB friendly system in Pittsburgh.
In this new era of Pittsburgh splashing out their first round picks here there and everywhere, does a big FA signing seem completely out of the realms of possibility? Excitingly for everyone who supports the Steelers – maybe not?
Why the Steelers need a Healthy James Conner & what to do with him in 2020Tweet
Jack is an NFL nerd with a passion for player stories and watching too much draft coverage. He's a DB coach with the Exeter Demons University team in the UK and a Steelers fan.