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: James Conner will re-establish himself as a top-tier starting running back in 2020.
Explanation: A third-round pick in 2017, James Conner broke out in 2018 after Le’Veon Bell skipped the season. Over 13 games, he rushed for roughly 1000 yards and added another 500 or so on receptions, totaling 13 touchdowns and being outright into the Pro Bowl. He was limited to just 328 snaps last year after playing 719 the year before, due to a variety of injuries, but he was often very good when he was on the field.
Often, people on the outside make too much of injuries and their likelihood of predicting future occurrences. Players like Lawrence Timmons were slapped with the ‘injury-prone’ label early in their career, only to go on a years-long streak of never missing a game.
That Conner was banged up last year does not tell me that he will be banged up next season. If anything, he is due for a healthy season. Bell was also banged up a lot early in his career but he’s only missed one game over the course of the last two seasons he was on the field due to anything other than rest, and that was due to illness, not injury.
So we’re not banking on him being injured. And he’s shown that he can play when he’s healthy. He is a complete back who can run, catch, and block. In the game in which he injured his shoulder, he went off for 145 yards on the ground. He gained 83 and then 78 yards receiving in two of the three games leading up to that.
Yes, Conner can look very good when he is on the field. I will let the health argument stand on its own, because we all know it. He’s had a significant injury every year of his professional career, and a significant one in college as well.
But the fact of the matter is that he averaged under four yards per carry in five of his first six games last year. He is a player who can be taken out of a game by a good defense. He can break some tackles, but his per-run efficiency is not elite.