Ranking season continues on with training camps still at least three weeks away from getting underway and ESPN.com has now begun their positional series for 2020. On Thursday, ESPN.com released their rankings of the top 10 running backs for the 2020 season and Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner failed to make the cut.
According to ESPN.com, more than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players were asked to help us stack the top 10 players at 11 different positions. Voters gave their best 10 to 15 players at a position, then the results were compiled and the candidates ranked based on number of top-10 votes, composite average, interviews and research. Ties were broken by isolating the two-man matchup with additional voting and follow-up calls.
The list of top 10 running backs for 2020 includes Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants at the top and he’s followed by Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers and Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys. Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints and Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans round out the top five running backs for 2020.
While Conner didn’t make this year’s top 10, he was listed as a third honorable mention receiving votes behind Aaron Jones of the Green Bay Packers and Chris Carson of the Seattle Seahawks. Here is the synopsis on him not making the top 10:
“Talented guy, two-phase player. He’s just been hurt.” — NFC exec
Is it fair that Conner’s not included in the 2020 top 10? Absolutely, but mostly because of his injury history since entering the NFL in 2017 as a third-round draft pick. Conner has played in just 37 out of possible 48 games since being drafted and failed to finish several other contents due to injuries. That’s the main knock on Conner entering 2020, a contract year for him, as he’s been productive more times than not when healthy and on the field and especially with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.
Just two seasons ago, Conner was a Pro Bowl running back and while he did miss three-plus games that season with an ankle injury, a lot of people forget that through the first nine games of the 2018 NFL season that he had the second-most total yards from scrimmage among running backs. He even led Barkley and Elliott through nine games played in 2018 and trailed only Todd Gurley by 72 yards.
After suffering through shoulder and quadricep injuries last season, Conner appears to now be back to full health and ready to prove he can be one of the NFL’s top running backs while remaining available every week in the process. He’ll get every chance to prove he’s a top back in the NFL right out of the chute in 2020 as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin already labeled him the team’s feature runner during the offseason.
When healthy and with Roethlisberger in the same backfield with him, Conner has indeed shown he can be a two-phase player at the NFL. In 2018, the University Pittsburgh product caught 55 passes for 497 yards and a touchdown. His pass protection has also very much improved over his rookie season and thus he can probably now be regarded as one of the top 10 pass protecting running backs in the NFL.
The Steelers now have two younger running backs in Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr. waiting in the wings behind Conner. Both will likely get limited work in place of Conner throughout the 2020 season regardless of health reasons. However, if Conner can remain healthy and productive in 2020, he’ll remain the team’s workhorse running back and that could ultimately result in him having a career season of more than 1,500 total yards from scrimmage.
Will Conner wind up being in the ESPN.com top 10 running backs for 2021 a year from now? I like his chances and that’s even if he winds up being on a different team because of him signing a lucrative contract in March or April as an unrestricted free agent. 2020 is a huge season for Conner and his football future might rest in the balance of it.
In case you’re curious, below are this year’s top 10:
1. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
2. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
3. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
4. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
5. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
6. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
7. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
8. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
9. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
10. Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets