NFL Draft

2017 NFL Draft Player Profiles: Pitt RB James Conner

We’re back again breaking down prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft, set to kick off on April 27th through the 29th. Our goal this season is to write reports on at least 150 players and hopefully, as many as 200. It will, of course, have a focus on Pittsburgh Steelers’ wants and needs but we will look big-picture too at the best players in this year’s draft.

If there’s a player you would like us to breakdown, let us know in the comments below. Today, another tight end for you to examine.

James Conner/RB Pittsburgh – 6’2 235

The Good

– Huge frame, one of the biggest in this year’s class
– Not a plodder, shows above average burst for how big he is
– Big lower half, able to run through arm tackles, especially vs DBs, when he gets up to speed
– Eyes and feet are connected, lateral quickness better than expected and a decisive runner in gap and zone schemes
– Work out of backfield increased during career and shows soft hands capable of catching away from his frame
– Willing pass protector who seems to take pride in it
– Inspiring backstory and an easy guy to root for
– High level of production in career, decorated college campaign

The Bad

– Lacks long speed and ability to consistently win the edge, won’t run away from second level defenders and get chased by most linebackers
– Height creates issue for pad level, defenders square to him are able to get low and bring him down, reducing his power
– Doesn’t succeed on the goal line/short yardage as often as you’d think
– Lacks a diverse route tree as a route runner and will need a high degree of development
– No defining trait physically


– Career: 3733 yards rushing, 5.6 YPC, 52 touchdowns
– ACC all-time leader in rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns (56)
– Second in Pitt history in yards and touchdowns trailing only Tony Dorsett
– Beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015, came back to start 2016 season
– 2014 ACC Player Of the Year
– Star running back and defensive end in high school, had 12 sacks senior year

Tape Breakdown

If you’re in the Pittsburgh area, Hail to Pitt, or know college football, you undoubtedly know and love Conner’s story. He beat cancer in 2015 to come back this past year and tear things up in the ACC, making him an easy guy to love and root for. And rightfully so.

But does the tape match up? Yes…and no.

I don’t see him as a plodder. He’s a big guy and sure, he’s not outrunning corners but he isn’t the lumbering guy I saw in someone like Andre Williams, whose NFL career never got off the ground because of his sluggish play (5’11 230). You see the initial burst and ability to get up to speed and get through the second level.

Of course, he gets taken down short of the end zone but you probably could’ve guessed that. The long speed isn’t there but the burst is surprisingly good. So are his feet, which you see in this example back in 2014 against Iowa.

The linebacker jumps into the B gap, Conner cuts inside to the A gap and gets upfield. Another subtle move and he runs through the arm tackle of the safety before finally taken down for a nice gain.

The biggest issue I see in his game is how tall he runs, how high his pad level is. Some of that is expected because he’s a big, tall back. But Conner’s power, which exists in moments, is lost when he isn’t up to speed and when defenders are getting solid, square shots into him. It hurts him a lot on the goal line, an area you’d expect a 235 pound back to succeed. Like here.

Or at the line of scrimmage here, running too high and getting popped in the chest, knocking him back.

He doesn’t consistently fall forward on his runs enough because of that and takes away an area he doesn’t win nearly enough as you would think and hope. And while there is some speed and burst, more than I thought I’d see, it obviously isn’t great relatively speaking, and I wonder exactly what his best trait is.

It’ll be a similar discussion with Conner as there was with Derrick Henry a year ago. But I like Henry’s burst and power more than I do Conner’s. I know I had him in my first 2017 mock for the Steelers and the team does like their backs on the bigger side, but I don’t know if I see potential to be an every down, workhorse back nor do I see enough consistent power in short-area situations to justify the investment.

Projection: Mid Day Three

Games Watched: vs Iowa (2014), vs Penn State, at North Carolina, vs Virginia Tech

Previous 2017 NFL Draft Player Profiles
Deshaun Watson Haason Reddick Marshon Lattimore Corey Clement Tim Williams
Jourdan Lewis Takkarist McKinley Brad Kaaya Nathan Peterman O.J. Howard
Charles Harris Alvin Kamara Tyus Bowser David Njoku DeMarcus Walker
Chidobe Awuzie DeShone Kizer Marlon Mack Cameron Sutton Zach Cunningham
Corey Davis Carl Lawson Patrick Mahomes Kareem Hunt Evan Engram
Derek Rivers Ryan Anderson Joshua Dobbs Jordan Leggett Samaje Perine
Corn Elder Bucky Hodges
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