It’s 2020. That means it’s the final season on the rookie deals of the vast majority of the players who were drafted in 2017 and remain in the league—barring first-round picks who had their fifth-year options picked up, players who have gotten extensions, and players who have been released and re-signed.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a number of players who fit into this discussion, including a couple of Pro Bowlers. JuJu Smith-Schuster, the second-round wide receiver, is coming off a down year. So is James Conner, drafted in the third round as a running back. Both were Pro Bowlers the year before.
Conner, an area native who was beloved during his time at Pitt, was a true feelgood story when he was drafted. His success during the 2018 season was something to see. Three years into his career, however, there are certainly realities that must be reckoned with before considering the possibility of him returning in 2021.
He knows as well as anybody that it’s entirely possible he’s playing somewhere else next year. He wouldn’t be happy about it, but it’s part of the business. While on his podcast, he was asked by Adam Schefter what it would be like to play for another team.
“It would be hard to. It would be hard to put another helmet on, just because of everything and what this city means to me”, he said. “The city I played my college ball in, the city I had my life saved in, became healthy. The city I got drafted to, and the city and I want to be able to say I brought a championship to”.
“It would be hard. I’m Pittsburgh through and through”, he added. “But like I said, I’m big on my faith, so I’m always going to end up doing and being where I’m supposed to be through the lord’s guidance and direction. We’ll see. We’ll take it one day at a time; I’m staying in the moment”.
Over the course of his three seasons since being drafted, Conner has played in 37 games, missing 11 due to injury, starting 22 of them. He has recorded 1581 rushing yards on 363 attempts, averaging 4.4 yards per carry, with 16 rushing touchdowns. He has also recorded 89 receptions for 748 yards and four more touchdowns.
During his Pro Bowl season of 2018, he rushed for 973 yards with 12 touchdowns while adding another 497 receiving yards, with one more touchdown. He put up these 1470 yards in 13 games, missing three due to a high ankle sprain.
Last season, he missed sic games, plus extended time in several others, due to a series of injuries, which limited him to just 715 yards from scrimmage, though he still managed seven touchdowns, including three as a receiver.