When James Conner was preparing for the 2018 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers running back did so anticipating being able to carve out a bigger role than the four or so touches per game that he received during his rookie season in 2017. He surely did not envision that he would be a full-time starter and make it to the Pro Bowl.
That makes this offseason significantly different from last year. Perhaps not that much in terms of his physical preparation, because he worked diligently last year to give himself the best opportunity to succeed, even while healing from a knee injury, but philosophically, it’s a very different mindset.
Conner is ‘the guy’ now with the other guy in New York, and now the new guy is Jaylen Samuels, where he was a year ago—but with even less experience in the NFL than his new backup now has after starting three games last year.
One thing that doesn’t change is his focus. And he makes that clear through his words. He has spoken about his vision in the same way since before he was even drafted, and that focus has yet to change heading into his third NFL season.
“Every offseason is important to get ready for the season, for how long the season is, the competition in the league”, he told the team’s website. “This one is a big one because it’s the next one. The focus is to get in the best shape I can be in before going to training camp, be ready for the season. It’s a big offseason for everyone”.
It doesn’t get more simple than that. This is a big offseason because it’s the next one. That living in the moment mentality is one of his driving forces, and prevents him from ever taking the job for granted. He was clear at the end of last season that he was fully committed to winning the starting job again. Not assuming that he would start, but earning it.
“I keep my mindset the same”, he said, but there is one difference. “I know what to expect this year”. Outside of that, “nothing is really different. Each year I need to add something to my game to get better”.
Last year, he demonstrated a fairly complete game, running the ball well in addition to performing at a plus level as a receiver and a blocker. But he had more difficulty in the receiving game as the season wore on, and his four fumbles are a concern. Pass protection can always be improved upon considering how important it is.