The 2020 NFL Draft will get underway Thursday night and barring something monumental happening, the Pittsburgh Steelers won’t make a selection until Friday night. Assuming the Steelers stand pat with their current selections, they’ll make two picks Friday night. One of those two picks could potentially wind up being a running back and if that’s ultimately the case, it will be a clear sign and message that running back James Conner likely isn’t expected to have a future with the Steelers past the 2020 season.
While Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has seemingly gone out of his way more than once this offseason to defend Conner’s injury-plagued career in Pittsburgh so far, he also hasn’t come right out and said that the team won’t draft a running back this coming weekend. While Conner probably doesn’t pay too much attention to what’s said or written about him, it’s probably hard for him not to notice that a large portion of media, analysts and fans of the team think the Steelers should either draft another running back early this year, or trade for another starter capable back such as Leonard Fournette, currently of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Come Monday morning, Conner will know if the Steelers have drafted yet another running back to compete against him. In the meantime, however, all he can do is sit and wait and continue to train and prepare for the 2020 regular season. That training that Conner’s been doing, at least for the last month or so, has mostly been at his home as like many of the rest of us, he’s been doing a lot of self-quarantining due to the coronavirus pandemic. A few days ago, Conner was a guest on ESPN and discussed what he’s been up to the last several weeks.
“A lot of hanging out, obviously, just like everybody, but I’m still been trying to get my work in and go hard,” Conner said. “I’m getting my outside work like with steps and still isolating. But just a lot of hanging out and such and trying to keep my body ready. Like I said, my mom is here for cooking and nutrition. And so still trying to do all the right things even though it’s a lockdown, but all is well. I’m still trying to work out, stay active and be positive.”
Conner was asked about the challenges that come with doing his offseason training at home and especially for someone like him who is coming off a season that included him missing six full games and the parts of a few others due to shoulder and quad injuries.
“You know, I think the home body workout actually is working well for me,” Conner said. “My shoulders, you know, I had the shoulder injury last year, both of my shoulders feel great now. Quad is great. So, I’m really looking forward to bouncing back. I got a lot more work to do on that field and I know I’ve got so many more plays to give. So, the home body workout has been treating me really good. Body feels great and you know, it’s just the nature of the position. You know, I’m a durable guy and I play physical. I run hard. So, injuries will happen, but I just gotta fight through them and I feel healthy now. So, I’m excited for this year, my fourth year coming up, I know it’ll be big.”
In total, Conner has missed 11 games and parts of several others since entering the league with the Steelers as a third-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. As mentioned, Colbert has made sure to say more than once this offseason that he has faith that Conner can return to being the same Pro Bowl caliber running back he was in 2018 when he registered 1470 total yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns. In the same breath, however, Colbert hasn’t ruled out that Conner could have even more competition to battle against this offseason via this year’s draft.
“I know that starting the season, we’ll have a healthy James Conner,” Colbert said Monday during the team’s annual pre-draft question and answer session with the media. “We’ve got some other young backs that have all been contributors in the past. There’s no reason they can’t still be contributors when healthy. I always go back to James Conner. He had acute injuries in 2017. He avoided that in 2018 and put up a Pro Bowl season. He’s still a young, ascending player. When healthy, he’s an NFL Pro Bowl player. That’s a hope. I know James will enter the season healthy. Can we complement it? We’ll see. But I’m not going in thinking we don’t have a starter capable runner because I know James Conner is.”
Regardless of whatever happens in the draft this coming weekend, Conner isn’t going to change his mentality, preparation or what he has in store for himself this upcoming season and beyond.
‘The work is far from done,” Conner said a few days ago. “But I’ve just been blessed so much up to this point, I’m just going to continue working hard. You know, I’ll block out all the noise. I believe in me. I know my teammates believe in me, my coaches, so I’m just going to keep putting one foot after another and keep trying to make progress and keep trying to be legendary.”
Conner probably needs to be legendary-like in 2020 if he’s likely to remain a member of the Steelers past this upcoming season. His rookie contract is currently set to expire after the 2020 season and barring him signing an extension this summer, only a franchise tag would likely prevent him from playing elsewhere in 2021.