The 2019 season of Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner certainly didn’t go as planned as injuries prevented him from playing in six full games and parts of a few others. Because of all the playing time missed by Conner in 2019, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was asked during his Tuesday end-of-the-season press conference how he goes about accounting for that when evaluating the running back’s season.
“That is a big component of it,” Tomlin said of Conner. “He didn’t spend a lot of time on the field healthy. But that is as much a part of the game as blocking and tackling. We will assess it and we will assess it with him as it pertains to him in an effort to minimize it to what degree we can moving forward. But injuries are a part of the game, it
In total, Conner played roughly 330 offensive snaps in 2019. If that’s the exact number, it’s estimated that Conner missed qualifying for the leagues Proven Performance Escalator these last three seasons. Had he qualified; Conner would have received a nice bump in pay for the 2020 season. Instead, Conner’s 2020 base salary should be $758,000.
The Steelers effectively ended their 2019 season with rookie running back Benny Snell Jr. as their primary ball carrier with Conner sidelined by injury. In addition to Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Kerrith Whyte Jr. and Trey Edmunds all had more than 20 carries during the 2019 season. On Tuesday, Tomlin was asked how many running backs currently on the roster he thinks he can use as a primary ball carrier.
“I think we are going to be defining that as we move forward into 2020,” Tomlin said. “What somebody’s role was in 2019, I don’t put them in a box in terms of what they are capable of in 2020. We have some good, capable men. I am not going to put restraints on what any of those guys are capable of being. We have some guys under contract, some of which proved that they can play and play in an expanded capacity because of what happened with James [Conner] and we will see what happens in 2020.”
That was a pretty vague response by Tomlin. However, with Conner, Snell, Samuels, Whyte and Edmunds all currently under contract for 2020, it would seem unlikely that the Steelers would use a day-two draft pick on a running back. Should the Steelers ultimately select a running back at any point during the 2020 NFL Draft, it’s not hard to imagine that happening in the fourth-round or later. Tomlin was asked on Tuesday if he’d like to add to his collection of running backs during the offseason.
“I’m not ready to talk about what 2020 looks like in terms of our agenda from a free agency standpoint, or a draft standpoint,” Tomlin said. “Kevin Colbert and I get together over the upcoming months and really do an awesome job of communicating and kind of developing that collectively. And so, you know, that’ll be answered as we move forward. I think I’m more reflective and evaluating the men that are here and what they did and the prospects of what they’re capable of providing us as we move forward as opposed to some of the things that you mentioned.”
When Conner has been healthy, he’s been a productive running back. Can he stay healthy in 2020? We’ll see, but with him failing to do so in his first three NFL seasons it could result in him not getting a contract extension during the offseason.
Conner rushed for 464 yards and four touchdowns on 116 total carries during the 2019 season. He was the lowest leading rusher the Steelers have had since Don Shy led the the team with 341 yards in 1967.