Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner finally found a new home earlier this week, signing a modest one-year contract to join Pittsburgh West, the Arizona Cardinals. He will reunite with his first NFL running backs coach there in James Saxon, who signed there after the Steelers let his contract lapse following the 2018 season.
A third-round draft pick in 2017, fate thrust Conner into a starting role in 2018 after All-Pro Le’Veon Bell elected not to show up after receiving the franchise tag that season for the second year in a row. He went on to have a Pro Bowl season in his own right, but his career trajectory, largely due to injury, hasn’t retained that course.
The running game as a whole really struggled last season for Pittsburgh, even if Conner was basically the lone bright spot. They made changes at offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, though not at running backs coach. And according to Gerry Dulac, a change at running back away from Conner was always the plan as well.
During a chat session yesterday, Dulac asked a question about Conner signing such an affordable deal with the Cardinals and what that said about the Steelers’ desire to keep him around. “They had no interest in bringing him back,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette journalist wrote.
“I’ve said many times here the past month or two in our chats, the Steelers want to fix their running game,” he noted. “It started with the coaches, and it would include changing the scheme, technique and PERSONNEL. You shouldn’t be surprised.”
It is not a surprise that Conner is not back. It is slightly surprising that they would not have had an interest in keeping him, however, given that he signed for so cheap. And on a deal that, after displacement, would have only cost them about $1 million in cap space.
The current running back depth chart consists of Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, and Anthony McFarland primarily, along with the addition of Kalen Ballage in free agency — of whom Dulac is a fan. Anybody else is more or less guaranteed not to make the roster.
Analysts widely expect Pittsburgh to draft a new featured back within the first two rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft, held April 29-May 1. Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, and Javonte Williams are the top three names in the class, and I’m not aware of any Steelers fans who aren’t banking on one of them wearing a Steelers uniform in 2021.