ESPN is deep into their offseason previews, putting together a list of 32 players, one from each team, who need a fresh start this offseason. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s RB James Conner. Brooke Pryor chose him and explains why below:
“The running back was a great story in 2018 when he had a Pro Bowl season filling in for Le’Veon Bell. Since then, though, Conner hasn’t been able to replicate those numbers because of recurring injuries and an overall ineffective run game. In his four seasons, Conner has never played a complete 16-game stretch, and he averaged just 28 yards per game in his last four starts. Conner is a free agent this offseason, and both he and the Steelers could use a fresh start.”
Whether or not Conner wants to return, it sure seems like the Steelers are ready to turn the page. Team President Art Rooney II signaled big changes to the run game this offseason, including ones to the personnel. The team canned o-line coach Shaun Sarrett, promoting assistant Adrian Klemm to his spot, while hiring long-time coach Chris Morgan as the team’s new assistant.
Pittsburgh’s run game ranked last in several categories in 2020. They also finished with the third-lowest run success rate in football.
Pryor’s summary of Conner’s time in Pittsburgh is accurate. He was putting together a fantastic 2018 season, easing the loss of Le’Veon Bell due to holdout, before suffering an ankle injury late in the season. Injuries again were an issue in 2019, battling a shoulder injury the latter half of the season, and slogging his way to just 464 yards rushing in an offense missing Ben Roethlisberger. Conner’s numbers slightly improved in 2020, his YPC increasing from 4.0 to 4.3, but after rushing for 100+ yards three times in the first five games, he failed to top 90 the rest of the year. Only twice did he even eclipse the 50 yard mark.
Given the Steelers’ cap situation and desire to add new personnel, Conner is almost certainly playing elsewhere next season. It’s hard to peg how much he’ll command on the open market or how many teams will be interested in signing him. He’s still only 25 and is a complete back as a runner, receiver, and blocker. Pro Football Focus recently suggested a three-year, $20 million (which seems high) pact with the New York Jets.
Around the rest of the AFC North, Baltimore center Matt Skura, Cleveland wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr, and Cincinnati wide receiver AJ Green were all chosen as the “fresh start” players for their respective teams.