Now that the 2018 NFL Draft is in the books, and the roster heading into the offseason is close to finalized—though always fluid—it’s time to take stock of where the Pittsburgh Steelers stand. Specifically where Steelers players stand individually based on what we have seen happen over the course of the past few months.
A stock evaluation can take a couple of different approaches and I’ll try to make clear my reasonings. In some cases it will be based on more long-term trends, such as an accumulation of offseason activity. In other instances it will be a direct response to something that just happened. So we can see a player more than once over the course of the summer as we head toward training camp.
Player: James Conner
Stock Value: Up
Evaluation Type: Moderate, Long-Term
Reason: Anticipated Reps in Training Camp, Bigger Role in 2019
The domino effect of Le’Veon Bell failing to reach a long-term contract with the Steelers earlier this year should play out to be a personal positive for running back James Conner as he enters his second season in the NFL.
A third-round pick a year ago, Conner was limited during his rookie season, first with injuries during the offseason that limited his participation, and then during the regular season due to Bel’s workload, and his own limitations in the passing game. Then a knee injury cut the year short altogether with a few games left to play.
Provided that he stays healthy—and he appears to be in the best shape of his life, to boot—he should see a tremendous amount of work in training camp this year, taking the majority of the first-team reps with the offense, because Bell is not going to be there. He should also get an extended look during the preseason.
While the team will still figure to ride Bell heavily during the regular season, it should also not be surprising if the team does rely a bit more on Conner than they did during his rookie year. His role should increase, though not dramatically, just as a predictable maturation for the second-year player.
With Bell hitting the open market next season, however, that opens the door for the young runner to ‘audition’ as a candidate to take over the position next season, assuming that the All-Pro indeed signs with another team for 2019 and beyond.
Had Bell signed a deal with the Steelers earlier this year, of course, then Conner would be stuck behind the truest workhorse runner in the NFL, which would make it very difficult for him to see playing time, and thus to make himself valuable to other teams.
He has a lot to prove before he can be considered as a legitimate candidate to be the Steelers’ primary runner, should it ultimately come to that. But now that possibility is on the horizon for him to shoot for.