Earlier in the offseason, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin labeled running back James Conner the team’s likely feature runner for the 2020 season. Even so, Tomlin labeling Conner that and having him seemingly backed up by second year running back Benny Snell Jr. still didn’t stop the Steelers from spending a fourth-round draft pick this spring on running back Anthony McFarland Jr. out of Maryland. On Wednesday, however, Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner took questions from the media now that the team has started their 2020 training camp and during his session, he also conveyed a lot of confidence in Conner for the upcoming season.
“I giggle because I saw James [Conner] this morning from afar and I walked away thinking, you know, he’s just a good, positive three-down back,” Fichtner said. “He can catch the football. He can protect. He can run. Man, and I’m rooting for him and I root for us that his availability will be there.”
Since being selected by the Steelers in the third-round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Pittsburgh, Conner hasn’t had the best of luck when it comes to his ability to stay healthy. His best season to date came in 2018 when he amassed 1470 total yards from scrimmage in just 13 games played in. It was good enough, however, for him to wind up playing in the Pro Bowl that year.
Conner has a lot of incentive to remain available to Steelers for all 16 games and hopefully more in 2020 as this is a contract year for him. While the Steelers are obviously hoping that Conner can be the team’s feature running back in 2020, Fichtner made it clear on Wednesday that the team is making sure to have a great stable of different kinds of running backs ready if needed.
“And we do have good competition in some other spots in there that are going to be fun to watch,” Fichtner said on Wednesday about the Steelers running back depth chart. “You know, a little good mix between power runners, specialty type players, skillful fast runners. Waiting to infuse a young runner in Anthony McFarland is going to be exciting.”
The Steelers running game wasn’t particularly good at all last season and especially after starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the remainder of it just six quarters into it. Conner also missed six full games and parts of a few others due to injuries. Even Snell, who seemingly played well when given the opportunity to carry the football, missed three games as a rookie with a knee injury.
At most, the Steelers will carry four running backs in 2020 with Conner, Snell, and McFarland likely to be included in that group. As for who the fourth and final running back will wind up being is anybody’s guess at this point. The players seemingly battling for the fourth running back spot are Jaylen Samuels, Kerrith Whyte Jr. Trey Edmunds, Ralph Webb, and Wendell Smallwood, who was signed to the roster on Tuesday.