Should the Pittsburgh Steelers wind up losing their Sunday night home Super Wild Card game to the Cleveland Browns, it very well could mark the last time that running back James Conner plays a game in a black and gold uniform. After all, Conner is now closing out the final year of his rookie four-year contract this season and that means he’ll be scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent when the 2021 NFL league year starts on March 17. On Friday, Conner was asked to comment on the possibility of Sunday’s game being his final one in a Steelers uniform and if that has him extra motivated to have a strong performance against the Browns at Heinz Field.
“It’s just playoff football,” Conner said. “I’m giving everything I got to this team. And, you know, I can’t control nothing about the future. The future only lives right here [in my head]. So, I’m just being where my feet are, taking it one day at a time, the rest is in God’s hands.”
Conner enters the Sunday night playoff game against the Browns having rushed for 721 yards and six touchdowns on 169 total carries on the season. The University of Pittsburgh product has also caught 35 passes this season for another 215 yards. Conner’s 936 total yards in 2020 ranked him 62nd overall in the NFL and that list includes players with return yards as well. Conner did, however, miss three games during the 2020 season with two being a result of him being on the team’s Reserve/COVID-19 list and one other because of a quadricep injury.
Recently, Pro Football Focus predicted that Conner, who has played in 50 of a possible 64 regular season games in the NFL since being selected by the Steelers in the third-round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Pittsburgh, will land with the New York Jets during the season upon signing a three-year, $20 million ($6.66M APY) contract that includes $10 million total guaranteed and $8 million fully guaranteed at signing. Such an exact deal, should Conner get it, would result in him being the 11th highest-paid running back in the NFL, according to current values tracked by Over the Cap.
March is still a long way off for Conner, however, and thus whatever his perceived free agent market value is right now, it might can be increased some in the playoffs and especially starting Sunday night against the Browns, a team that Conner has had some nice success against over the years and as recently as Week 6 of this season when he rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown on 20 total carries.
For his career, three of Conner’s nine regular season games that he’s rushed for 100 or more yards in have come against the Browns. Even so, Conner made it clear on Friday that he is not counting on the success he or the rest of the Steelers offense has had in past games against the Browns as counting for anything Sunday night when they face Cleveland for a third time this season.
“It’s going to be a completely different game, so nothing in the past really can help us going forward,” Conner said. “We’re going to study our film and try to do what’s been successful. But it just comes down to who’s the most physical team and things I can do; ball placement, ball security, all of that. So, just looking forward for a good game.”
Sunday night will mark the first NFL playoff game that Conner has played in as he missed the Steelers last playoff game in 2017 because of a knee injury. Regardless, Conner doesn’t view Sunday’s playoff game being any different than a regular season contest.
It’s just playoff football,” Conner said on Friday. “It’s January playoff football and we’ve got a good, hungry Cleveland team coming through Pittsburgh. So, it’s different in that sense. Football will be football, but it’s playoff football, so we know we will get their best.”