The Pittsburgh Steelers well underway with the offseason workouts at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, also referred to as the South Side Facility. We are already into the heart of the offseason, where hope springs eternal following a few months of pretty significant changes, in terms of both departures and arrivals.
How are the rookies performing? What about the players that the team signed in free agency? Who is missing time with injuries, and when are they going to be back? What are the coaches saying about what they are going to do this season that might be different from how it was a year ago?
These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.
Question: Where does James Conner rank among running backs starting off in 2019?
For several seasons, it was easy to make the argument that the Pittsburgh Steelers had the best running back in the league in Le’Veon Bell. That’s why they tried to make him the highest-paid running back in NFL history, but he wouldn’t budge on his stance concerning fully guaranteed money.
That resulted in him making the decision to sit out the 2018 season, which gave then-second-year running back James Conner the opportunity to start. Over the course of 13 games, he would compile close to 1000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards, averaging 4.5 yards per rush and over nine yards per reception, with 12 rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdowns.
Those were good numbers, of course, which got him into the Pro Bowl outright. But does that mean he was, and is, one of the very best running backs in the league right now? Maurice Jones-Drew doesn’t seem to think so, as he recently ranked Conner 14th at the position.
Jones-Drew’s top 10 at the position were, in order, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Joe Mixon, Nick Chubb, and Dalvin Cook, followed by Sony Michel, Kerryon Johnson, and Aaron Jones before finally getting to Conner at 14.
What’s interesting is that a lot of these running backs are young, many of them only entering their second or third seasons, so there is still so much for them to show. And outside of Chubb, Michel, and perhaps one or two others, Conner has less experience than most because he hardly played as a rookie.
I could certainly entertain the argument that he is a top 10 back, but it’s hard to get much higher, maybe as high as eight in front of Mixon. Somebody being really generous could push for placing him ahead of Gordon even, but looking at this list of names, I can’t imagine anybody putting him in the top five, even if you want to take Bell out and move Gurley up.