Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner is now fully recovered from the knee injury he suffered late last season and if that’s not enough, it sounds like he is in much better shape than he was during his rookie season. In fact, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin indicated recently during a question and answer with Steelers Nation United members that Conner made an offseason transformation similar to the one starting running back Le’Veon Bell made several years ago.
“It’s been fun to watch James because he’s a classic example of a guy who’s in his second year, second lap around the track, if you will,” Tomlin said recently when asked about Conner. “It’s reasonable to expect those guys to be significantly better because there are no unknowns. They know what to expect, they’ve been in our program before and James is a reflection of that. He’s highly conditioned. Steeler fans are really going to be impressed with his body and his level of conditioning.
“It really looks like the transformation that Le’Veon went through as a young guy in terms of his level of conditioning and the things that he’s able to display to this point on the field. Obviously, we’re not tackling and tackling is a big part of the running back position so we’ll wait to see how that goes, but I’ve been really impressed with what he’s been able to do with his body, his growth and development there.”
We’ve written a few times already this offseason about Conner and how he looks a lot more sleeker than he did last year at this time. It’s also worth noting that Conner was limited some in his practice participation during last year’s OTA practices due to a minor soft tissue injury and that certainly didn’t seem to be the case this year.
Last year, Conner, the Steelers second of two third-round selections in the 2017 NFL Draft, rushed for 144 yards on 32 carries during his rookie season in very limited offensive playing time. He might have received more playing time than he actually did before suffering his season-ending knee injury in Week 15 had he shown to be better in pass protection. By the sound of things a month ago, that’s an area of Conner’s game that we might see some noticeable improvement in this season.
“He’s a little bit more confident in the playbook, handling protections — he’s just in better shape,” Steelers tight end Jesse James said of Conner during the team’s OTA practices, according to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com. “He’s running fast, running every ball to the end zone. He looks good.”
Even Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger admitted during the team’s OTAs that he’s seen some improvement in the second-year Conner.
“I think he’s looking really well right now,” Roethlisberger said of Conner a few weeks ago. “I like what he’s doing. He took those rookie kind of hiccups last year and has really gotten a lot better, I think. And like I said, we’re in shorts and short sleeves, no pads right now, but I’m excited to kind of get to camp with him. He’s one that I’m excited about.”
Conner and the rest of his Steelers teammates will begin practicing in pads in roughly five more weeks and it will be interesting to hear how the Pittsburgh product holds up this year in the running backs versus linebackers drill. While Conner still isn’t expected to see a lot of playing time in 2018 as long as Bell remains healthy, he’s destined to give the starter a few more breathers than he did during his rookie season and that would be a welcome sight for sure.