One of the most high-profile pending free agents the Pittsburgh Steelers will be dealing with this offseason who has pretty much never been connected with possibly returning is running back James Conner, a 2017 third-round draft pick, who does have a Pro Bowl in his background.
A Pittsburgh product, he seemed to be tailor-made to be a Steeler, but while he has been productive while on the field, the main concern following his career has been availability. By and large, he avoided major injury this past season, but he also missed time due to Covid-19.
The Steelers are also coming off the worst running game in the league, which probably adds to the sense that the team will not be looking to retain Conner, who will surely earn a contract worth more than they would be willing to pay. Yet owner Art Rooney II wasn’t quite ready to jump on to that line of thinking.
“James is in a category with a number of our players that we certainly would be interested in having him, and we’re going to have to make decisions”, he said in speaking with Andrew Stockey on Friday with WTAE.
“There aren’t any players coming off this roster that we’re saying, ‘well, we don’t want him’”, he added. “It’s really going to be making decisions on which ones fit, which ones can we get done that make sense. There’ll be some tough decisions, and we’re gonna be working hard to figure out the best way to do it”.
Limited to 13 games last season, Conner recorded 721 rushing yards on 169 attempts, scoring six touchdowns. He also recorded 35 receptions for 215 yards. Over the course of his four-year career, he totaled 2302 rushing yards on 532 attempts with 22 touchdowns, in addition to 124 receptions for 963 yards and four more scores.
His best season, of course, came in 2018, when he rushed for 973 yards and added another 497 yards receiving. He scored 12 touchdowns on the ground and another receiving for 13 total scores in 13 games played, having missed three games late in the year with an ankle injury.
The Steelers have three other running backs on the roster, with third-year Benny Snell leading the way, who has recorded at least 100 rushing attempts in each of his first two seasons. 2020 rookie Anthony McFarland is a speed back who can have an expanded role. Jaylen Samuels, who has largely fallen out of favor, is entering the final year of his rookie deal.