Opinions seem to vary when it comes to second-year running back James Conner. There are some who believe he can and will be a feature back in the near future. Others wonder if he can even be a capable change-of-pace runner. But I don’t think anybody is a harsher critic of his performance than himself.
The former third-round pick is entering his second season and he is approaching the offseason as though he did nothing as a rookie. He has a lot to prove, either way, but he seems to be of the mindset that he has yet to show what he is capable of doing.
Now recovered from a torn MCL that he suffered late in the season, Conner reported to OTAs last week in great shape. He looks to have slimmed down pretty significantly from last season, which is a pretty common thing to see from players after they learn what it’s like to go through a full NFL season.
“This is an opportunity to learn, get on field reps and grow as a player”, he told reporters during OTAs last week, with Le’Veon Bell of course not in attendance. “I haven’t proven anything yet. It’s another opportunity for me to show the coaches and earn respect from my teammates that I am capable of playing on Sundays”.
He didn’t play all that much on Sundays a year ago, that’s for sure. He fell well short of 100 snaps, having never even seen 10 snaps in a single game, though his highest total—nine snaps—did come in the game in which he was injured.
And his injury prevented him from taking advantage of a golden opportunity to see significant playing time. With the Steelers having already locked up the division title and a first-round bye ahead of the regular season finale, Bell and many other starters rested.
Conner would have started that game and received the bulk of the playing time had he been healthy. Instead, they brought in Stevan Ridley off the streets, and he performed well enough in that game to earn himself a new contract. He will now compete with Conner and a few others for two roster spots—potentially three.
The Pittsburgh product summarized his rookie season by concluding that he “didn’t really do much”, maintaining that he has “a lot to prove”. He has spent a lot of time already this offseason looking to strengthen the weak areas of his game.
“I just needed to learn more, needed to grow more”, he said. “I’m in the process of growing right now”. How much can he grow? It would be great if he can be a full-time starting running back, which is likely something they’ll need in 2019.
But right now he’s just out to prove that he can play and can be trusted to carry out his assignments. While he was effective most of the time as a runner, his contributions in just about every other area really called for improvement.