On Wednesday, I finally got around to addressing Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and the plausibility of 2020 possibly being his final season with the team. Personally, I hope it is not, but I can certainly see him being with another team exactly one year from now just the same. With Smith-Schuster’s future now addressed for the time being, it is a perfect opportunity to look at the plausibility of 2020 also being the final season in Pittsburgh for another fan-favorite, running back James Conner.
For starters, Conner, like Smith-Schuster, is now in the final year of his rookie contract. Also, like Smith-Schuster, there has been no sign so far this offseason that any sort of a contract extension is forthcoming for Conner. Quite honestly, I think Smith-Schuster has a much better shot at signing an extension this offseason than Conner does even though it is far from guaranteed that wide receiver is given one.
After having a Pro Bowl season in 2018, Conner wound up having a very disappointing 2019 campaign that included him not being able to stay healthy. Just when it looked like Conner’s season might turn around in the Steelers Week 7 Monday night game against the Miami Dolphins, a contest that included the University of Pittsburgh product rushing for 145 yards and a touchdown on 23 total carries, he suffered an AC joint injury in his shoulder with almost two-minutes remaining.
That shoulder injury never fully healed for Conner and he touched the football just 24 times in total in the final nine games, of which he missed nearly seven of. He missed so much time during the 2019 season that it wound up costing him a nice increase in his 2020 salary because of him failing to qualify for the NFL’s Proven Performance Escalator.
Despite Conner being labeled an injury prone player through his first three years in the NFL, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert seemingly went out of his way this past offseason to show support for the running back. Colbert, in numerous offseason interviews, has consistently said that Conner’s injuries last season were “acute” ones and that he has confidence that the running back can return to his 2018 Pro Bowl form in 2020. That often-unsolicited support aside, the Steelers still decided to spend one of their two fourth-round draft picks this year on yet another running back in Maryland product Anthony McFarland Jr., an undersized, yet very explosive, underclassman.
With McFarland now joining Conner, Benny Snell Jr., Jaylen Samuels and Kerrith Whyte on the Steelers 2020 depth chart, the team now has a lot of different flavors of running backs to mix and match throughout the summer and into the start of the regular season. While all five of those running backs are unlikely to make the team’s initial 53-man roster, it is almost guaranteed that Conner, Snell, and McFarland will along with new fullback Derek Watt, barring injuries.
Regardless of the total number of running backs kept come Week 1 of the 2020 regular season, it’s easy to imagine that Conner won’t sniff the 270 total touches he had 2018 this coming year. In fact, 200 total touches in 2020 for Conner figures to be his ceiling, assuming he plays in at least 15 regular season games. 200 touches works out to an average of 12.5 a game.
Assuming Conner hits a 200-touch target in 2020, he’ll likely have at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage to show for it. Last season there were 26 running backs in the NFL that posted 1,000 or more total yards from scrimmage so Conner accomplishing that feat in 2020 wouldn’t be that big of a deal overall. However, 1,400 or more total yards from scrimmage for Conner in 2020, like he posted in 2018, would be a big deal and definitely increase his market value.
Assuming Conner ultimately enters the 2020 regular season without a contract extension, which is a highly likely scenario, odds then become very good that he’ll at least test free agency in March of 2021. He’d be foolish not to and especially if he’s able to stay healthy in 2020 and accumulate at least 1,000 total yards from scrimmage.
For Conner to return to the Steelers in 2021, it would likely have to be on a cheap two or three-year contract. The Steelers, however, are likely to have several other unrestricted free agents that fit that same criteria next March as well and that list could include tackle Alejandro Villanueva, tackle/guard Matt Feiler, cornerback Mike Hilton and cornerback Cameron Sutton, just to name a few.
So, is it plausible that Conner is about to play his final season in Pittsburgh with the Steelers? Very, and even more plausible than Smith-Schuster and especially if Conner has a rebound season similar to the one he had in 2018.