The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: In his first game back from injury, James Conner will see 50 percent of the snaps or more.
Explanation: After missing the past three games—and all but one quarter of the past six—James Conner is officially listed as questionable to play tonight despite going through a full week of practice, but it’s been reported that he is expected to play. Nursing a shoulder injury, and re-entering a backfield that has been effective in spurts during his absence, it’s unlikely that he sees his typical full workload, but how much will he play?
After his reinjury scare four weeks ago, the Steelers are not going to put him into the game without the expectation that he will be able to go at a full capacity. That doesn’t mean playing 80 percent of the snaps, which had been the norm for him last season, but 50 percent is a pretty low bar to clear for a starting three-down running back.
Two of the three games in which he failed to log at least 50 percent of the snaps this year were the games in which he was injured. The other was the blowout loss to the New England Patriots in the opener, which featured four- and five-receiver sets pretty liberally.
Conner is still the best runner. He is the best pass protector. Overall, he is also the best receiving back with what he can do after the catch. And Jaylen Samuels has dropped his share of balls anyway.
While it’s true that he is the Steelers’ best option at running back in virtually all situations, that doesn’t apply when he’s running at perhaps 65 percent health. Not only is there the fear of the shoulder still being a hindering factor, the simple reality that he has hardly played in months is at issue as well.
More to the point, the rest of the running back room has been generally playing well, getting things done, and finding their niche in his absence. Benny Snell has done well for the most part as the lead runner, with Kerrith Whyte adding some dynamics with his speed, and Samuels has contributed as well, even with the wildcat returning. Conner will have to earn his snaps back, both through play and a demonstration of health.