Why James Conner Will Remain a Top Running Back in Fantasy Football

With an average draft position (ADP) that has him going off the board in the late first or early second round, James Conner presents an interesting dilemma for drafters in 2019.

Will Conner come crashing back to earth after a breakout sophomore season? Will the Pittsburgh Steelers look to lighten Conner's workload after he suffered an ankle sprain down the stretch in 2018? The answers to these questions will be key to his fantasy value this season, and will hinge on how the Steelers plan to utilize their backfield.

How Does Conner Stack Up Against Past Steelers' Backs?

The Steelers have traditionally been an excellent source of fantasy production at the running back position. This makes it difficult to know if Conner is as talented as his fantasy scoring suggests, or if he is simply the product of his surroundings.

Looking at Conner's Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) compared to the Steelers' yearly touch leaders since 2010, Conner certainly seems to be closer to Le'Veon Bell than he does Rashard Mendenhall.

Conner's Rushing NEP per play was 0.06 points better than the league last year. He also compares favorably to Bell when looking at Success Rate -- the percentage of carries that generate positive NEP -- versus the NFL average. On the table below the NFL averages for both Rushing NEP per play and Rushing Success Rate are calculated for just the running back position.

Year Full Name Rush NEP/P NFL
Diff. Success
2018 James Conner 0.06 0.00 +0.06 44.65% 41.22% +3.43%
2017 Le'Veon Bell -0.01 -0.05 +0.04 39.56% 38.08% +1.48%
2016 Le'Veon Bell 0.07 -0.02 +0.09 44.83% 40.28% +4.55%
2015 DeAngelo Williams 0.07 -0.04 +0.11 45.00% 39.03% +5.97%
2014 Le'Veon Bell 0.06 -0.03 +0.09 47.24% 41.36% +5.88%
2013 Le'Veon Bell -0.06 -0.03 -0.03 39.75% 41.36% -1.61%
2012 Jonathan Dwyer -0.09 -0.03 -0.06 37.18% 42.32% -5.14%
2011 Rashard Mendenhall -0.03 -0.02 -0.01 43.42% 41.82% +1.60%
2010 Rashard Mendenhall -0.05 -0.04 -0.01 38.39% 41.03% -2.64%

Conner's numbers are encouraging in the sense that there isn't an obvious reason for the Steelers to rush to find a replacement at running back, as he certainly held his own when compared with the lofty expectations that Bell had set from past seasons. Even Conner's Reception NEP per reception was better than league average, showing the versatility that allowed him to be a fantasy force in 2018.

Now that we have seen how Conner stacks up to past Steelers running backs, we can see how Conner measures up to the rest of the league's workhorses. 12 running backs topped 250 touches last year, and Conner compares favorably to the competition in virtually every metric.

Conner's 0.06 Rushing NEP per rush ranks 6th among the group, finishing only 0.01 behind Ezekiel Elliott, and ahead of fellow top-drafted running backs Joe Mixon and Saquon Barkley.

Conner's Rushing Success Rate ranks even higher, placing him fourth among the workhorses, behind only Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, and Christian McCaffrey. Conner further showcases his all-around talent by ranking third or fourth in every Reception NEP metric, trailing only the elites like Gurley, Kamara, and McCaffrey.

With promising production wherever you look, it seems unlikely that the Steelers saw something in Conner that has them worried moving forward. Even Conner's ankle injury appears to be a minor concern, as he returned in time for the regular season finale after missing three games. Let's look at Conner's competition for touches in 2019 in order to zero in on a reasonable outlook for the third year running back.

Assessing the Competition

Conner enters the 2019 season facing competition for snaps in both the early-down role and in the passing-down role.

Second-year running back Jaylen Samuels represents the passing game threat, producing two notable fantasy performances in his three games as the starting running back in 2018, notching seven catches in one game and breaking out for 142 yards rushing in another. Picked near the end of the fifth round coming out of NC State, Samuels is a better athlete than Conner, though Conner was drafted earlier and profiles as a better early-down runner. Let's take a look at how they compared in the passing game last year:

Full NameRecRec NEP/RecTarRec NEP/TCatch Rate
James Conner550.53710.4177%
Jaylen Samuels260.78290.7090%

Conner and Samuels each performed above league average in Reception NEP per reception and Reception NEP per target, but Samuels outperformed Conner in both metrics, especially when looking at targets, as Samuels was ultra-efficient with his opportunities. Samuels ranked fourth among all running backs with 20 or more targets in 2018 with his 0.70 Reception NEP per target.

While Samuels will likely take more passing game work in 2019, it's fair to wonder if he can maintain his receiving efficiency while shouldering a bigger workload. With Antonio Brown and his 168 targets now missing from the offense, even if Samuels does cut into Conner's receiving work, there should be enough volume to go around to keep Conner involved in the passing games. While the Steelers are likely to pass less than their league-leading 713 attempts from last year, more targets devoted to running backs should leave Conner and Samuels with plenty of opportunities in the passing game this season.

Conner's competition for the early-down role is fourth-round rookie Benny Snell Jr.. Snell projects to be a less explosive athlete than Conner and was drafted almost a round later. With the struggles and departure of former backup Stevan Ridley, drafting Snell feels more like a depth move than a direct threat to Conner. With the likely increase in rushing attempts resulting from the Steelers regression towards a more balanced offense, Conner can afford to lose a few carries while still maintaining his usage from last year. Conner's early-down and goalline roles look safe for now.

2019 Outlook

As the running back likely to lead the Steelers backfield in touches in one of the most fantasy friendly roles in the league, Conner remains a solid top-tier running back heading into the upcoming season. Conner's 21.5 fantasy points per game in PPR leagues from 2018 puts him in elite company and easily tops everyone outside of the draft's top tier of running backs.

Conner appears capable of maintaining a high volume workload, and I would much rather draft the running back attached to the consistent Steelers offense as opposed to the already injury-riddled Bengals offense with Mixon, or the Adam Gase-led Jets offense with Bell. I'd argue for Conner as the seventh running back off the board in drafts this year, and depending on how the Melvin Gordon contract holdout goes, Conner could rise as high as the sixth running back.

numberFire's draft kit is slightly lower on Conner, slating him as the ninth-ranked running back, but his combination of volume and efficiency could easily have him surpass that mark, and they make him a dependable running back option early in drafts.