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 2020 season will be the last for James Conner in Pittsburgh.
Explanation: More than any other position in the game, the running back is viewed now as much as ever as ‘fungible’, meaning that they can be swapped out for a like part with comparative ease, and are considered to have a relatively short shelf life. For a running back with a significant injury history, it’s hard for teams to justify a second contract when he hasn’t been an All-Pro.
In three seasons, James Conner has had one strong season, and even that came with blemishes. Now, he can’t be faulted for playing behind Le’Veon Bell as a rookie, of course, but even in 2017, he ended up on injured reserve with a knee injury.
His 2018 Pro Bowl season was marred both by costly fumbles and, once again, injuries, a high ankle sprain putting him on the shelf for a critical three-game span late in the year. The Steelers lost two of those games, and missed the postseason.
You know what happened last year already. Meanwhile, the Steelers are looking at running backs, as evidenced by their virtual ‘meeting’ with Jonathan Taylor. Even if they don’t draft a back this week, they can draft one next year.
I think part of the problem in assuming that Conner will be one-and-done with the Steelers contract0wise is the assumption that he is going to get this big deal once he hits the free agent market. Given his injury history and the fact that he isn’t a big receiving back like Christian McCaffery, there’s a good chance his price tag remains affordable.
Let’s also not forget, we are talking about a team that for better or worse tried to make Bell the highest-paid running back in NFL history not once, but twice, with his only rebuff being the fact that the deal didn’t include as much in full guarantees at signing as he would have liked, and no guarantees after year one.
The Steelers are on record as telling Conner that they believe his injuries last year were a fluke and pretty much telling him to write it off and put it past him, readying himself to have a career year in 2020.