2017 South Side Questions: How Would Your Grade James Conner’s Rookie Year?

The journey toward the Super Bowl is now well under way with the Pittsburgh Steelers back practicing at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, still informally referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility. With the regular season standing in their way on the path to a Lombardi, there will be questions for them to answer along the way.

We have asked and answered a lot of questions during the preseason and through training camp, but much of the answer-seeking ends in the regular season, and teams simply have to make do with what they have available to them. Still, there will always be questions for us.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond as they develop, looking for the answers as we evaluate the makeup of the Steelers on their way back to the Super Bowl, after reaching the AFC Championship game last season for the first time in more than half a decade.

Question: How would you grade James Conner’s rookie season, and how does it make you feel about his future?

He wasn’t exactly Alvin Kamara or Kareem Hunt, but given his relatively minute workload, Steelers third-round rookie running back James Conner had a pretty productive rookie season. While he only got 32 carries over the course of 14 games, he turned them into 144 rushing yards, and that included six carries of 10 or more yards, with one explosive play.

He also contributed as a blocker on the kick return team, and late in the season briefly had a role on kick coverage, but he was not much of a contributor in the passing game. He was only targeted once on a busted screen play, and his work in pass protection was shaky.

Of course, the Steelers’ primary interest in Conner is his ability to carry the ball, and he clearly showed potential in that regard. With nearly 20 percent of his carries going for double-digit yardage, he showed a surprising explosiveness to his running style that actually shouldn’t be all that surprising if you look at his college numbers.

It was obvious that Conner was going to have a light workload this year behind Le’Veon Bell, who is the premiere workhorse of this generation, bar none. Simply nobody else comes close to playing the percentage of snaps that he does when he is dressed to play.

I am a bit concerned about the frequency with which he got nicked up in his limited workload. He seemed to have suffered a bump or bruise four or five times this year. And he clearly has some work to do in his game. But obviously he can be a contributor. A featured back? I’m not sure.

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