James Conner: One Hit Away From Fantasy Relevance

By Corey Snyder

I know it is a poor choice of words but this is not about Bell and Blount’s magic car ride in 2015. Or his missed drug test the following offseason. I do not even intend to bring up the fact that so far Bell has been absent from team activities, has yet to sign his more than $12million franchise tag or has mentioned not wanting to play without a long term deal. This is about the frightening reality that all running backs are just one hit from being sidelined for the year.  A feeling Steelers fans and Bell owners know all too well. To be clear, I am not calling Bell injury prone however simply identifying the concern which comes for any Steeler’s running back, given the usage they typically see.

Bell has been a workhorse back for the Steelers when he is on the field.  He saw a staggering 91.8 percent of running back carries for the Steelers in games he finished over the past two years. Given his production as a lead back and high percentage of usage it is no wonder he finds himself in the top round of startups this year, even with his risk. Now without getting into Bell’s injury history in detail I will just note that he has missed eight regular season games over the past two years for injury.  Of course we all know there were five more missed via suspension.  It is easy to look at his workload and expect to see a large drop off from the running back position without Bell in the back filed but that is not the case. During the 13 regular season games that Bell missed DeAngelo Williams saw 90.6 of the Steelers running back touches. Only a drop of about 1% from Bell’s 91.8 touch rate during the 17 games Bell started over that span.

Also consider that even though Williams averaged 86 YPG with Bell out of the lineup he never saw more than five carries in any game that Bell finished without an injury. The Steelers over the past two years have shown that even with a capable back up on the bench in Williams they provide more than heavy share of the workload to their starting running back.

That is where rookie running back James Conner enters the picture. The Steelers running back depth chart consist of Bell, who has yet sign his franchise tender, Fitzgerald Toussaint who has 100 rushing yards over the past two years with the Steelers and James Conner. Technically Knile Davis is still is on this roster, but you know, he’s Knile Davis. The backup running back job should be clearly in Conner’s grasp this year which could lead to opportunity for a heavy workload.  Like all late round running backs opportunity is everything. Only time will tell if 2016 was just a tune up year for Conner after tearing his MCL and fighting off cancer.  No one would fault him for needing time to work back to the form he displayed in 2014 when he was ACC player of the year.  With all of Bell’s uncertainty Conner may be given a big opportunity to show that 2014 was more representative of the player he is. Finding himself in possession of 90% of the Steeler’s run attack would be an opportunity to show what kind of player he can be and lead to season winning numbers from him. Conner is high reward low cost asset to be stashing for this offseason.