James Conner doesn’t talk as though he’s a Pro Bowl-caliber player. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ second-year running back, in fact, hardly even seems to acknowledge the fact that he performed as a starter during the past season, and outright rejects the notion that he has earned the same designation for the 2019 season.
“I’ve got to earn it every year”, he told reporters during Pro Bowl practice this past week. “Nothing is given to you. There is no label. I am not the starter this year. I have to earn that. I will earn it in training camp. That’s what we’ll do”.
Conner was selected in the compensatory portion of the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft and was to be used as a sparse complementary piece to All-Pro starter Le’Veon Bell. That was his function during his rookie season, struggling to receive playing time in part because he lacked details in all facets of the passing game.
With Bell an absentee for all of 2018, however, the vacant running back job was his, and he performed ably, rushing for just shy of 1000 yards in only 13 games, scoring 12 times on the ground. He contributed nearly another 500 yards through the air on 55 receptions, adding another touchdown through that mode of delivery. But so what?
“Any time I get satisfied or comfortable and think I arrived, that’s when I decline”, he admitted. “If you think you are the guy, that’s when you will decline. You have to have the mindset that you have to earn everything. Nothing is given to you. Right now I am not the starting running back. I have to earn it”.
Right now, there doesn’t project to be a whole lot of competition, admittedly, even if the Steelers technically finished off the year with four running backs on the 53-man roster, plus Bell on some reserve list for not showing up.
Behind Conner were Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds, and Stevan Ridley. Ridley was relegated to irrelevance following a crushing fumble in Week 16. His opportunities had already grown scarce by that point. Samuels, a rookie out of NC State, flashed at times, with a 100-yard rushing game and three receiving scores. Edmunds did not receive any opportunities to contribute on offensive, but the older brother of Terrell Edmunds was a special teamer after being called up from the practice squad.
With Bell inevitably leading for more guaranteed waters in March, it’s likely the Steelers will address the position in a fairly meaningful way either through free agency or the draft. Ridley is unlikely to be retained and Edmunds is as fungible a piece as they come.
The team may like Samuels as a complementary piece, but he is far from a proven commodity at this point, so they will surely be looking for either a nice veteran player on the cheap or a young back through the draft who can grow into a larger role.