James Conner has always been underrated in one aspect or another during his career. He earned a reputation of being a big, bruising back in college, but the truth is that he was less powerful—but more elusive—than was the perception.
That has continued to be the case during his NFL career, now with five starts under his belt for the Pittsburgh Steelers. While he can certainly put a shoulder into a defender, he is far more likely to sidestep or juke you than run through you.
And he has been doing that very, very well so far this year. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, no player in the entire league has forced as many defenders to miss a tackle attempt against him than has Conner, and he has had no concern for whether that was on a rushing attempt or a reception.
By their numbers, he has already forced 16 missed tackles on 85 rushing attempts. That is the fourth-most forced missed tackles on rushes behind only Kareem Hunt (93 carries), Marshawn Lynch (77), and Melvin Gordon (73), and tied with Christian McCaffery (63).
But he also has another 16 forced missed tackles on just 22 receptions. It helps that he had a bunch of tacklers flying all around him on one long reception in Sunday’s game, but nobody in the NFL has forced as many tacklers to miss on receptions this season so far. Nobody. Not just running backs. Nobody. Odell Beckham, Jr. is second with 13 missed tackles forced on 39 receptions.
Combined, that is 32 missed tackles that Conner has induced over five games, which is an average of 6.4 missed tackles per game. Over a full season, that would be 102 missed tackles. And that would be a first in Pro Football Focus’ numbers, for any player to force over 100 missed tackles in one season. The closest was Lynch, with 90, including 72 on rushes. Le’Veon Bell’s best season was 80. Their data goes back to 2006.
The former Pitt standout’s elusiveness should not be as surprising as it has been for some, as it is also something that he showed in college. He was one of the most explosive running backs in college football for a couple of seasons, and that was thanks in large part to his ability to force tacklers to miss.
Conner has already hit a few impressive spin moves so far this year, and has shown a broader repertoire of diversionary tactics that he has used to escape defenders, but he has yet to try to jump over anybody. Perhaps that is only a matter of time.