When it comes to rookies, it really doesn’t matter how highly you’re drafted. Typically the priority for a game-day helmet, unless you are able to immediately earn a starting job, which is a rare feat on good teams, is to find a way to make yourself useful to the special-teams coach.
You may find yourself given a pass for consideration of future development based on your draft stock if you do not show early on that you can potentially be a defensive or offensive contributor, but in order to actually be able to put on the uniform during your rookie season, you typically will have to be able to contribute, and contribute seriously, on special teams.
That is a lesson already well-learned for former Pitt running back James Conner, who as a third-round draft pick is likely in no danger of not making the roster at the running back position regardless of what he shows over the course of the next few months.
The unfortunate reality is that the Panther has missed the vast majority of the offseason so far, going all the way back to the team’s rookie minicamp soon after the draft in late April, with a hamstring injury that has had him sidelined for the bulk of team drills, something that the team’s website may have acknowledged for the first time yesterday.
But in an article written by Teresa Varley, the author quotes Conner as telling reporters that he has every intention, essentially, of playing every week, even if it doesn’t come on offense, because he understands what he needs to show special teams coach Danny Smith in order to earn his helmet on game day.
“I am going to try and learn all of the special teams, all four phases, and see if I can make an impact and try to earn a role on special teams for sure”, he told reporters about his intentions for the third phase of the game.
He reminds somewhat of Roosevelt Nix, who was an undersized defensive lineman at Kent State before trying to make it as a linebacker in the NFL. The Falcons originally picked him up as an undrafted free agent and failed to convert him into a fullback, but the Steelers succeeded a year later.
Conner, too, has a defensive history in his background, and even saw some situational snaps on defense for the Panthers last season as an edge rusher. He definitely would seem to have the appropriate mentality to become an early contributor to a special teams unit that always seems to be in need of difference-making contributors.
It may be especially important this season with core special-teams contributor Vince Williams entering the starting lineup. A four-phase participant himself, Williams is likely to see a significant reduction in third-phase snaps, and Conner will be looking to absorb as many of those as he can, in addition to any others.