When he got the phone call late on the second day of the draft from a 412 number, running back James Conner couldn’t be happier knowing that he was about to become a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and continue his professional career on the same field on which he played his college ball.
But he also knew, no doubt, that he wouldn’t be thrown into the fire, working behind Le’Veon Bell, who is one of the few true workhorses at the running back position in today’s game. Conner would certainly not be overworked—but it would also be a struggle for him to even get on the field.
On the offensive side of the ball, the third-round draft pick has seen just 24 snaps over the course of the first six games, officially, which works out evenly to exactly four snaps per game. Bell, in comparison, already has over 300 snaps.
He knows, I’m sure, where he compares in terms of workload to the other rookie running backs in the league. As a matter of fact, the two running backs leading the league in rushing yardage at the moment are both from the 2017 NFL Draft class, including fellow third-round pick Kareem Hunt. Fourth-overall selection Leonard Fournette is second in rushing.
But they are not the only rookies toting the rock. Dalvin Cook, despite his season-ending injury, was an instant starter as second-round pick. Joe Mixon has had to share the workload in Cincinnati, but is still the primary ball-carrier.
There are, in fact, 16 rookie running backs who have earned more carries than has the Pittsburgh backup. There is Samaje Perine in Washington; Tarik Cohen in Chicago; D’Onta Foreman in Houston; Chris Carson in Seattle; Aaron Jones in Green Bay; Elijah McGuire and Wayne Galleman among New York teams; Christian McCaffery in Carolina; Matt Breida in San Francisco; Corey Clement in Philadelphia; and Alvin Kamara in New Orleans.
All of these players—plus two rookie quarterbacks—have run the ball more than Conner this season. Actually, significantly more. All 18 of the above-mentioned players, including the two rookie quarterbacks, have at least 25 rushing attempts.
Conner has 14, but thanks in large part to a couple of 10-plus-yard runs mixed in, he is averaging a healthy 4.9 yards per carry for 69 total yards—even if only one of them went for a first down.
Still, only five of his 14 rushes to date have been successful plays. And he showed that he still has work to do before he can be trusted in pass protection. He has even been passed over by Terrell Watson for short-yardage work, with the first-year back converting three times on third and short.
It’s clear that Conner may not yet be suited for an extended workload. But if the offense is going to focus on the ground game, and the blocking is going to improve, then it might make sense to get him more touches, to lessen Bell’s workload, and sharpen his skills for when they might be needed down the road.