The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: James Conner will have a reduced role in the passing game in 2019.
Explanation: During his first season as a starter, the Steelers largely used Conner as they would Le’Veon Bell in all phases of the game, largely because they weren’t fully prepared for the possibility of not having Bell. They should have more realistic passing game alternatives available in 2019.
This is an easy buy simply because of what I offered at the end of my explanation. Understand who Conner’s backups were last season. Stevan Ridley is a player who has never been a pass catcher. He might be a veteran but he was largely used as a first- and second-down back over the course of his career. And Jaylen Samuels, while able to catch the ball, had pretty much everything else to learn about being a running back.
That won’t be the case in 2019, and in fact Samuels was already starting to see a bigger role as the season progressed, leading up to (and not only during and after) Conner’s injury. I also fully expect the team to draft another running back whose skill set includes adeptness in the passing game. Add in the fact that he started dropping passes late in the year and there’s your argument.
While he did drop a couple of passes, the reality is that Conner also overall performed above and beyond expectations as a receiver during his first season as a starter after failing to catch any passes during his rookie season.
For starters, he put up nearly 500 yards while coming close to averaging 10 yards per reception, and that efficiency was hard-earned by forcing missed tackle. In addition, we have seen him make some fabulous grabs, showing that he is fully capable of catching the ball, some of them even not counting as receptions.
He is also significantly more reliable than Samuels in pass protection and whoever they will bring in during the draft, and that fact can’t be ignored. It’s the reason Conner didn’t get many reps as a rookie, but it’s also hard to predict Samuels will have a similar jump in that area.