James Conner Solidifies the Steelers' Rushing Attack
Pittsburgh native Fred Rogers used to sing "Won't you be my neighbor?" on his show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. While I don't envision Mike Tomlin singing that same song, his team selected a familiar Pittsburgh sports star.
The Pittsburgh Steelers used a third-round pick (105th overall) on Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner. Conner played his home games with Pitt at Heinz Field, the same stadium used by the Steelers.
Casual football fans may be aware of Conner because of his heroic and inspirational battle with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, but there's much more to Conner than a player overcoming cancer, even if that's a remarkable achievement in and of itself.
Against All Odds
During his sophomore season in 2014, Conner was the ACC Player of the Year, beating out guys like Jameis Winston and Duke Johnson. He had a video-game stat line for the season, gaining 1,765 yards on the ground while scoring 26 touchdowns.
At the beginning of the 2015 season, Conner tore his MCL, ending his season shortly after it began. It was later that year that he was diagnosed with cancer.
Conner fought like hell and became cancer-free before the 2016 season. In that season, Conner led the Panthers to a road victory against the soon-to-be national champs, the Clemson Tigers.
In that game, Conner racked up 189 total yards and 2 touchdowns. Later in 2016, the Panthers met with the Syracuse Orange in what would be end up being the highest-scoring game in college football history. Conner strolled his way to 160 total yards and 3 touchdowns.
All of this college production is impressive for a young man who overcame so much adversity, but what can we expect from him in the NFL?
The Match Game
Using his statistics from the combine, here is a list of players with which he compares.
|2014||Jeremy Hill||Round 2, Pick 23||99.78%|
|2008||Marcus Thomas||Round 5, Pick 31||92.39%|
|2006||Cedric Humes||Round 7, Pick 32||92.35%|
|2011||Evan Royster||Round 6, Pick 12||91.83%|
|2014||Carlos Hyde||Round 2, Pick 25||91.44%|
|2013||LeVeon Bell||Round 2, Pick 16||91.30%|
|2005||Maurice Clarett||Round 3, Pick 37||90.32%|
|2007||Dwayne Wright||Round 4, Pick 12||89.77%|
|2005||Nehemiah Broughton||Round 7, Pick 8||89.53%|
|1999||Madre Hill||Round 7, Pick 1||89.20%|
Eerily, Conner and Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill are almost identical matches. You can cherry pick names like his new teammate Le'Veon Bell or Carlos Hyde, but there are plenty of forgettable players on this list, too. But based on his career and the obstacles he has already overcome, it'd probably be wise not to bet against the guy.
Pitt Is It
Also in his favor, the Steelers are a great landing spot for Conner.
Bell is arguably the best running back in the NFL and averaged about 28 touches per game in 2016, but running back is still a need for the Steelers. Bell has had trouble staying on the field during his career -- whether it was due to a season-ending knee injury or a suspension for drug use. Players like DeAngelo Williams have excelled in the Steelers' offense in Bell's absence.
In 2015, Williams was the top running back in the NFL on a per-carry basis, per our Net Expected Points metric, among rushers with 200 or more carries. Williams is currently a free agent whom the Steelers aren't expected to re-sign.
Conner won't be expected to produce league-leading results the way Williams did, but the opportunity to contribute should be there for him. With Williams gone, Conner's only competition will be newly-acquired Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint.
The shelf life of a running back in the NFL is shorter than most positions, and after a season in which they rode Bell to the AFC Championship game, the Steelers would be wise to allow another rusher to shoulder some of the load in an effort to prolong Bell's career. Conner can do that and maybe much more.