Beyond 2018, the future of Le’Veon Bell as a Pittsburgh Steeler is in some serious doubt. And it’s fair to wonder how this group will look in 2019 when Bell is likely going to be in another city. Obviously, the Steelers will look back to the draft to fill his gap.
But will it be a high investment? Or will they look for a committee approach? Much of that depends on their faith in James Conner, making this upcoming season an important one for him.
Is he viewed as the takeover, feature back? His rookie season still makes that answer hazy. In limited action, he looked impressive as a runner and though it came on fresh legs versus tired defenses, averaged a healthy 4.5 yards on 32 carries. Everything else was an issue. Shoddy pass protection against Jacksonville resulted in a Ben Roethlisberger interception and Conner didn’t seem to be trusted for several weeks after that. Splitting him out was an adventure and rarely happened, ultimately catching zero passes on a measly target. Then he went down with an MCL tear against the New England Patriots to close the book on his rookie campaign.
A year wiser and healthier is a better barometer for the talent they have in him. If he improves, the team’s going to feel a lot better about what they have even post-Bell.
Still, that chance to prove it could be difficult. Whenever Bell shows up, he’s going to play his typical 90% of the snaps regardless of if the team believes he’ll be back or not. That leaves just a sliver of work for Conner and makes any evaluation of his play, even assuming a heavy dose of action in the preseason, a big ‘ol incomplete after two years.
If Conner isn’t viewed as “the guy” after this year, what’s his role going forward? A perennial backup who only seems to have mediocre special teams value, even though Kevin Colbert raved about it post-draft. All of those questions are impossible to answer as we stand today. But they’re going to be awfully important this time next year, assuming Bell never gets a contract extension done, which is looking like a pretty safe bet.