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: The state of the running back position in 2020 lives and dies with James Conner’s health.
Explanation: While he got off to something of a slow start in 2019, when he was healthy—not even necessarily fully healthy—it was readily apparent that James Conner was the best and most talented option last season for the Steelers in and out of the backfield. But he is not the only running back who has had positive moments, and the running back position is regarded as the most fungible.
Name me a successful season, other than 2008 due to injury, in which Mike Tomlin ever did not have a clear featured runner. I’m not sure you could even do that for Bill Cowher, either, though of course he spent most of his career with the great Jerome Bettis.
The fact of the matter is that, institutionally, the Steelers are an organization that believes in having a featured runner, and if there is one on this roster, it is Conner. He had true moments of greatness in 2018, and rightfully earned Pro Bowl honors. As the 2019 season progressed, he looked to be working his way back into that form, but he simply couldn’t stay healthy.
And nobody else stepped up. Jaylen Samuels regressed significantly. Kerrith Whyte is more of a 10-snap guy and can’t sustain the position, even if he can break off a long gain or two. Benny Snell still has a lot of work to do.
But Conner had a lot of work to do heading into his second season in 2018 as well. And Snell frankly had more success as a rookie than did Conner. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Snell will be as good as Conner is at his absolute best, the natural progression he should see from his rookie year to his second should reveal a player more than capable enough for sustaining the position with the bulk of the snaps.
Don’t be surprised, as well, if the Steelers do draft another running back. Kevin Colbert didn’t make it sound as though they are starving for another body in that room right now, but there’s a fair chance it at some point in the middle rounds represents their best player available, and it’s not a position of such strength that they would so willingly pass it up.