The Pittsburgh Steelers caused quite a stir in their chosen city when they brought home one of their own during the 2017 NFL Draft, using a third-round selection on Pittsburgh running back James Conner. Due to a string of unfortunate injuries, however, neither we nor the team have been afforded much of a look at the young ball carrier as of yet.
Conner suffered a hamstring injury during rookie minicamp soon after the draft, and that kept him out of all but the lightest work during OTAs and the mandatory minicamp. While he was up to speed once training camp started, it did not take long for him to suffer a shoulder injury that has caused him to miss most of the time since, including the first preseason game.
But don’t worry, we are getting to the plus sides. For one thing, he has already returned to practice, albeit the most recent one being one outside of pads, and the only one in which he has participated in team drills. But the other thing is that the relatively little we have seen of him has been drawing a fair amount of praise.
And one thing in particular that he was able to draw attention to in his game over the course of the last couple of practices is the fact that his ability to catch the ball has been understated. There were some mixed opinions about his ability to contribute in this area of the game when he came out of college, even though he looked good doing it at his Pro Day.
Of course, the running back was not known for his abilities as a receiver while with the Panthers. While unfortunately being best-known for his successful battle with cancer, Conner on the field was recognized as a hard-nosed runner and something of a workhorse.
He averaged over 17 carries per game during his college career, one with some obvious mitigating circumstances. But he carried the ball 298 times in 13 games during his sophomore season, rushing for nearly 1800 yards and 26 rushing touchdowns.
In comparison, he had just five receptions that year. In fact, the bulk of his 30 career receptions came in 2016, catching 21 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns. It is a part of his game that he has actively tried to develop—even working with Le’Veon Bell—and it has shown.
He particularly impressed in this regard during practice earlier this week, including during a two-minute drill in which he ended things early with a long touchdown that prompted Mike Tomlin to make them reset and take more reps.
Conner has said that he wants to play in the Steelers’ second preseason game, and you can bet that his first snap in a stadium will be greatly anticipated by many. I for one will be watching out for how he does catching passes.