Roster turnover is an inevitability in this league. But the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster has changed considerably since the end of last season. Many players who have been important to this franchise departed, either in retirement, limbo, or another uniform. As we wind down the time until training camp opens, it feels appropriate to acknowledge the old faces that we’ll no longer be seeing on the sidelines this year.
That includes Pro Bowlers and former high draft picks, as well as undrafted free agents of varying accomplishment. Four losses along the offensive line, multiple departures at linebacker and in the secondary, and other changes mixed in, will make for a rather different roster.
All the same, there are the steady presences that remain: the Ben Roethlisbergers, the T.J. Watts, the Cameron Heywards. Who will be the next long-term faces? Minkah Fitzpatrick will certainly be one. What about Cameron Sutton? Zach Banner? Kevin Dotson? Devin Bush? When will their names join this series?
RB James Conner
I suppose at this point that James Conner’s primary legacy as a member of the Steelers will be as a transitional starter between Le’Veon Bell and Najee Harris. One a former All-Pro, and one that the Steelers hope will be another who is capable of achieving such heights.
Drafted in the third round in 2017 out of Pitt, Conner seemed destined to be a Steeler, an area native who had already forged relationships with the team through mutual time spent at Heinz Field. Mike Tomlin made it happen with their compensatory pick at the end of the second day of the draft.
After a quiet rookie season, all eyes were on Conner in 2018, suddenly thrust into the spotlight after Bell no-showed, opting to sit out the season rather than risk injury while playing under the franchise tag for a second consecutive year.
He would go on to make the Pro Bowl, rushing for nearly 1,000 yards and adding about another 500 in receptions, for 13 total touchdowns in 13 games. He missed three games, however, with an ankle injury, and injuries would become a familiar pattern for him.
Though he has been a pretty consistently positive performer when he has been on the field, Conner’s somewhat frequent lack of availability had clearly become a problem. It’s one of multiple reasons that the Steelers have had a bottom-five running game for the past couple of years.
Recognizing the need for dramatic change, the organization decided that the first step was to make a change at who is shouldering the load. They likely decided early on that they would be moving away from Conner, who would be able to find a reasonable deal in free agency.
Now all eyes are on Harris, the first-round pick out of Alabama, who is expected to be a workhorse from day one. He’ll have to navigate a virtually all-new offensive line, as well, with a new line coach and a new offensive coordinator. It’s quite a fresh start for the entire unit.