When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Panthers running back James Conner with their compensatory selection in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, do you recall what your impression was of him as a football player?
For most, they viewed him as a hard-nosed bulldozer who would run through players. The truth is that while he has the ability to run with power, he was always a more elusive runner than he was given credit for. Now seven games into his starting career, he is making sure that everybody sees it.
As a matter of fact, he literally leads all qualified running backs in Pro Football Focus’ Elusive Rating, which calculates a player’s efficiency in forcing opposing defenders to fail on tackle attempts. Of the 36 running backs running backs who are averaging at least 10 touches per game, nobody has forced more missed tackles, or done so more frequently, than Conner.
The second-year back has carried the ball 128 times so far this season, and has added 31 receptions as well. According to the site’s numbers, he has forced 26 missed tackles on his rushing attempts, which is impressive. But it is mind-boggling that he has forced 20 missed tackles on his 31 receptions.
His 46 combined missed tackles forced are the most in the NFL, behind 44 for Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants, who has 10 more total touches. The Kansas City Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt also has 41 missed tackles forced, on five fewer touches than Conner. Nobody else has hit 40 yet, and in fact few have even reached 30. Alvin Kamara, in spite of having 139 touches, has only forced 22 missed tackles.
Conner leads the league with an Elusive Rating of 88.8, which is calculated by dividing the number of missed tackles by the total number of touches multiplied by the player’s yards after contact per attempt, times 100. It sounds convoluted, but it is an attempt to quantify a player’s ability to produce offense irrespective of blocking.
And while the Steelers have one of the best offensive lines in football, Conner deserves a lot of the credit for his own success, because he has made a lot of things happen on his own, as these numbers show. He is also averaging over three yards after contact per play, one of 14 qualified running backs who can make that claim.