I have over the course of the past several seasons turned to a series of articles around this time of year in which I looked to explore the issues and questions facing the Pittsburgh Steelers during the upcoming season and trying to identify the range of possibilities in which any given scenario can end.
I started out with a dual series called The Optimist’s/Pessimist’s Take and switched last season to the Devil’s Advocate series. In an attempt to find a more streamlined solution with a title more suited to the actual endeavor, we are introducing a simple Buy Or Sell segment exploring whether the position statement is likely to be worth investing in as an idea.
The range of topics will be wide, from the specific to the general, exploring broad long-term possibilities to the immediate future of particular players. I will make an argument for why a concept should be bought into as well as one that can be sold, and you can share your thoughts on which is the more compelling case while offering your own.
Topic Statement: James Conner will see over 100 touches during his second season even if Le’Veon Bell stayed healthy.
The Steelers used a third-round pick on James Conner—even if a late one—because they knew he was a running back that they would be able to use. That usage rate was on the lower side during his rookie season because he was still getting used to playing in the NFL. He still has work to do as a receiver and pass protector, but he’ll be in a much better spot for coaches to trust him when the regular season starts.
Bell has a high usage rate, but that’s because they haven’t really had a number two running back they trusted in all situations. In DeAngelo Williams’ first season here, they liked him so much that they got him on the field with Bell not infrequently. Bell even threw a block for a Williams carry once.
The second-year back came in ready to go. He looks great and primed to take on a bigger role. Bell might normally see an insane usage rate, but that will go down with a second back they’re much more comfortable putting on the field. As we pointed out recently, Conner was effective when he did carry the ball last year.
Conner played in 14 games as a rookie and only accumulated 32 touches, not even a third of the way toward 100. While it’s quite reasonable to assume that he will get more work, tripling it is a bit of a stretch, even given that he will theoretically have two more games in which to do it.
There is also the reality that the team will have a third running back in which they are more likely to give work than they would have last season. Whether it’s Stevan Ridley or Jaylen Samuels, or perhaps even both, I think there will be more mouths to feed with the few snaps Bell doesn’t take.
And therein is the crux of the matter. Bell when on the field plays 85 to 90 percent of the time. That means about 900 to 1000 snaps a year. Conner might be hardpressed to even accumulate many more than 100 snaps, let alone touches.