The 2018 NFL Draft is drawing near, which seems to be a fitting time to take a look back at the rookie seasons of the Pittsburgh Steelers class from the 2017 NFL Draft. People start talking about the quality of a draft class before said class is even completed, of course, but now we have a year of data to work form.
Over the course of the next several days, I will be providing an overview of the team’s rookies, as well as an evaluation of each rookie that the Steelers drafted, while also noting any undrafted free agents that were able to stick around. This will not include the likes of Mike Hilton and Kameron Canaday because they were first-year players, not rookies.
The Steelers went into the 2017 NFL Draft with eight selections, including one in each round at their natural selections, as well as an additional pick in the third round as compensation for the net losses that they were dealt in free agency from the 2016 offseason.
Continuing a recent trend, the class has proven to be top-heavy in terms of early results, though there are still opportunities for those selected by them in the later rounds of the draft to develop into bigger contributors as well.
Player: James Conner
Draft Status: 3rd round (105th overall)
Although it was readily apparent that Steelers rookie running back James Conner did not receive a great deal of playing time last season, I was surprised to find just how little it was when I looked up how many snaps he actually played on the offensive side of the ball.
Pittsburgh was on the prowl for a new backup running back after choosing not to re-sign the 34-year-old DeAngelo Williams in the offseason, and they became enamored with Conner, the Pittsburgh running back with the nationally-known story who seemed destined to don the black and gold.
Having a feel-good story doesn’t help you pick up blitzes, however, and that’s a big part of why he saw relatively little playing time last season. That and, you know, the fact that Le’Veon Bell barely comes off the field.
It’s interesting that Conner carried the football very nearly half the time he was actually on the field, playing 68 snaps and running the ball 32 times. And he was successful when he did, averaging 4.5 yards per attempt for 144 total yards. It’s a small sample size, but he showed an explosiveness to his approach that has been catching people by surprise since his college days.
The fact that he was unable to contribute in the passing game made it difficult for the team to play him, however, which is something that former offensive coordinator Todd Haley stated outright. Conner spoke to the team’s website earlier this offseason about wanting to improve his game in all aspects of the passing play, which would clearly be in his best interests.
But he has to get back on the field before he can do so. He suffered torn MCL against the New England Patriots in the 14th game of the season and is continuing to rehab his way back from it. Not that he is any stranger to adversity.
What sort of role he plays in his second season very much remains to be seen. But it could be important to see what he has to offer this year what with it looking as though Bell will be playing in another uniform come 2019.