We have been talking a lot about James Conner over the course of the past couple of weeks, and for good reason. It’s a big season for him, for one thing, heading into his second season. Even for a position like running back, where many players are able to make a big impact immediately, you still expect that jump in year two.
He was also coming off an MCL tear, so to see him not just on the field but in great shape is big. To see how motivated he is, to see his drive while he is working on the field, is big. Beyond that, let’s face it, he is the top running back on the team right now while Le’Veon Bell remains out sitting on an unsigned franchise tag.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returned from vacation this week and came away impressed with how Conner has grown in his second season, though he cautioned that he was eager to see that growth once the pads come on in training camp.
Conner himself was equally cautious in speaking about himself. Lauren Kirschman quoted him as saying that his biggest priority this offseason is “being accountable” about “everything”. He talked further back in the offseason during an interview with the team’s website about how he wanted to work on the passing game, and he reaffirmed that desire.
“Protecting game, the pass game, being in shape. There’s a lot of things” he is focusing on, he said. “It’s year two now. I’m feeling more confident this year”. During his rookie season, he played a bit like a chicken without a head, both in a good sense and a bad.
“When you know what you’re doing and the spots you’re supposed to be at and who you’ve got”, the Pitt product told the Penn Live reporter, “it allows you to play faster instead of sitting back there wondering where to go”.
Or slower. Conner often ran without patience last season, and that sometimes cost him the potential for extra yardage. Being able to know when you can slow down is just part of exactly what he talked about. He is talking about playing faster mentally, as in diagnosing your responsibilities, more so than literal playing speed.
The third-round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft that he wants first and foremost to prove to himself that he is capable of playing at a high level in the NFL, more than for anybody else. “Then”, he added, “get the respect from my teammates”. Conner only had 32 touches during his rookie season before tearing his knee.
“I’ve got a lot to prove, so work hard and I’m excited for training camp”, he concluded his thoughts in wrapping up OTAs. I think it goes without saying that he won’t have any shortage of people rooting for him to succeed.