Proven Performance Escalator Awaits Steelers RB James Conner In 2020, But What Else?

James Conner Run

As things stand right now with six games left in the 2019 NFL regular season, Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner stands to receive an increase in pay in 2020 due to qualifying for the league’s Proven Performance Escalator. Assuming he stays on track for that by playing the necessary percentage of snaps this season, Conner, the Steelers third-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, will see his scheduled 2020 base salary of $758,000 jump up to the amount of whatever next season’s low restricted free agent tender amount winds up being, which right now is projected to be around $2.144 million. That raise aside, there will be a lot of talk at the conclusion of this season about whether Conner should or will receive a long-term contract extension from the Steelers prior to the start of next season.

While Conner did have a fantastic 2018 season for the Steelers, that included him registering 1,470 total yards from scrimmage on 270 total touches, the University of Pittsburgh product still missed three and a half games due to an ankle injury. Those missed games last season came on the heels of him missing the final two games of his rookie season due to a knee injury that needed to be surgically repaired.

So far this season, Conner has missed two and three quarters games with a shoulder injury and is on pace to miss at least one more. Whenever he does return to action this season, it’s imperative that he stays healthy and that he puts up some impressive performances to close out the 2019 schedule. Should he fail to accomplish both of those things, it will be hard to justify him receiving a very lucrative contract extension from the Steelers during the offseason.

Conner, to his credit, has seemingly worked incredibly hard on his offseason conditioning and training ever since he was drafted. Even so, he’s still missed quite a few games so far during his career and that must be somewhat concerning to the Steelers. When he’s fully healthy, he’s an offensive asset as a running back and that includes his ability to pass protect. Has he just been unlucky when it comes to the injury bug? It’s possible but missed games due to unfortunate injuries are still missed games, nonetheless.

With six weeks now remaining in the 2019 regular season, Houston Texans running back Duke Johnson is the tenth highest paid running back in the NFL at $5,203,333 per season, according to Over the Cap. However, after this season ends, and until the start of the 2020 NFL league year in March, it will be interesting to see how many running backs currently in the top 10 fall off due to them being released.

In short, will Conner be worth at least $5 million per season come the end of this season? If so, is that the kind of money he’d be willing to sign a long-term extension for at any point during the offseason? Would that be an acceptable per season average in the eyes of the Steelers?

While it’s hard to predict how Conner’s offseason will go this far out, I don’t think I’ll be surprised if he ultimately doesn’t sign a long-term contract extension prior to the start of 2020 regular season. Should that ultimately be what transpires, then Conner’s 2020 season will have quite a bit riding on it as a franchise tag in 2021 might beckon him if he stays healthy and puts up the kind of numbers he put up in 2018.

Once again, barring Conner missing several more games this season due to injury, he’ll get a nice raise in pay in 2020. However, an even higher increase in pay in 2020 might totally depend on how quick he can return from his latest injury and how productive he is once he gets back on the field again. His contractual status will be a huge topic of discussion once the 2019 season is over with in addition to how much he’s worth.

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