Around this time last year, Pittsburgh Steelers running back was working with the first-team offense, but more as a placeholder for the eventual return of Le’Veon Bell. He was hopeful of carving out a larger role in the offense for himself than he had during his rookie season before he tore his MCL, but nothing was being guaranteed him. And he didn’t expect anything different.
He still doesn’t. In fact, even after becoming a Pro Bowler last season—outright, not as an alternate—he still believes he has to earn the starting job this summer. He gained 1500 yards and scored 13 touchdowns in 13 games for the Steelers last season. The only other running backs of note on the roster are second-year Jaylen Samuels, rookie Benny Snell, and third-year Trey Edmunds.
“Jaylen and Benny, those guys are talented, so I haven’t earned anything yet”, he told reporters during OTAs last week. “That’s what training camp and everything is for. Everything is earned, not given”.
It might be technically true, but it’s hard to imagine Conner not being the starting running back when the Steelers take the field against the New England Patriots in the season opener in September.
He made a big jump from year one to year two, in many ways, including physically. He slimmed down, probably picked up some quickness in his game as well, and it was reflected in his performance during the regular season.
He also made significant strides in the passing game. He had some key blemishes—a drop here, a fumble there—but he was still highly and surprisingly productive with the ball on his hands in space after the reception, making tacklers miss and picking up extra yards. And he made some impressive receptions as well, not to mention the advancements in pass protection.
In fairness to his comments, though, Samuels is looking to take the same sorts of strides in year two as Conner did last year, and Samuels was actually a bigger contributor as a rookie. He started three games, had a 100-yard game, and scored three touchdowns, with all of them being on receptions.
I don’t know what the realistic possibility is of somebody really and sincerely challenging Conner for the starting job—they could eat into his playing time, sure—but I’m not going to bemoan somebody from stoking the fires that drive him.
“Competition brings out the best in all of us”, he said of the young and potentially talented backfield. He, Samuels, and Snell should all work together and push one another to be better, both individually and collectively.
But until something meaningful changes, Conner is going to be the leader of that group.