Last season, Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner touched the football 270 times in total in the 12 and a half games that he played in. With the Steelers about to close out their 2019 mandatory minicamp practices, it’s starting to sound more and more like Conner might be hard-pressed to hit those same touch totals this upcoming season. In fact, Conner, who is now in his third season with the Steelers after being selected in the third-round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Pittsburgh, said has much on Wednesday.
“I think it’ll be spread out pretty evenly,” Conner said, according to Jonathan Bombulie of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, in regard to the possibility of the Steelers offense using a much more balanced workload approach in 2019 with their running backs than the previous season.
Conner, however, wanted to point out on Wednesday that even if his workload is ultimately lowered some in 2019, it shouldn’t be because the team is worried about his overall durability despite him missing five and a half games in his first two seasons in the NFL because of knee and ankle injuries.
“I’m durable,” Conner said Wednesday, per Bombulie. “I missed a couple games. No matter what shape you’re in or how your body is, that happens. You know that’s going to happen.”
Conner’s comments aside, new Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner alluded to Conner’s early NFL career injury history as being a reason why the offense might lower his workload some in 2019.
“It’s a long season,” Faulkner said Tuesday, according to Mike Persak of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “You’ve [have to] be cognizant for sure. And at the same time, keep him sharp and playing at a high level throughout. So that is a challenge, especially with a guy like James who’s ready to go out there and he’ll play every stinking play of the season if he could.”
Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner also hinted some on Wednesday that Conner might get a bit more rest in 2019 than he did in 2018.
“I think you monitor it no matter what,” Fichtner said, per Bombulie. “I don’t know that you want to put any of the backs in that situation.”
After Wednesday’s mandatory minicamp practice, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was even asked about backup running back Jaylen Samuels and if the team’s offense could potentially use him more creatively in 2019 now that he’s in his second season.
“You know, I think the journey will reveal that to us,” Tomlin said. “His growth and development will reveal that to us. James’ versatility and level of conditioning will be factors in that discussion. So, we’re open to it. All people are working hard, but there are also some other viable men. It’s not just a two-man discussion at the running back position. I’ve been pleased with the progress of the larger body.”
That larger body that Tomlin speaks of figures to include Steelers rookie running back Benny Snell Jr., the team’s fourth-round draft pick this year out of Kentucky, who has a running style similar to Conner’s. On Wednesday, Conner talked not only about Snell’s offseason progress to date, but a little bit about Samuels’ as well.
“I’ve seen his [Snell’s] college tape. He’s also learned the offense really quick. I know he’ll be ready to play this year,” Conner said of Snell. “Jaylen obviously is going to make a lot of plays too.”
In case you didn’t know the exact breakdown of the Steelers 2018 running back playing time numbers, Conner was responsible for roughly 75 percent of all run attempts up until he got injured in Week 13. He had also played roughly 80% of all offensive snaps before suffering an ankle injury that ultimately forced him to miss the next three games. Then-rookie Samuels proceeded to play well in Conner’s absence even though his running style includes more patience.
When you combine what all has been said this week by Conner and several Steelers coaches with what guard Ramon Foster said last week in regard to him looking forward to seeing the offense use running backs with different running styles more in 2019, it’s hard not to imagine a more committee-like approach this upcoming season with Conner still getting the lion’s share of the work.