James Conner Is a Steal in 2020 Fantasy Football Drafts
Conner missed six games last season, and Pittsburgh rotated Benny Snell Jr. and Jaylen Samuels as replacements. With Conner in the last year of his rookie contract, the Steelers drafted Maryland running back Anthony McFarland Jr. in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
With a very crowded running back stable in Pittsburgh, how should you value Conner in fantasy?
So far in 2020, Conner's average draft position (ADP) is 40.4 per Fantasy Football Calculator. He's being drafted at 4.04, ranking ahead of the likes of Mark Ingram (4.06), Todd Gurley (4.10), and David Montgomery (5.02).
He's going nearly three full rounds later than he was at this time last year.
Conner has missed a combined nine games over the last two seasons, but still remains a viable fantasy threat in Pittsburgh. In 13 games in 2018 -- among running backs with at least 115 carries -- Conner ranked 13th in Rushing Success Rate and 15th in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry, while also finishing third at the position with 12 touchdowns. The 25-year-old also fared well as a receiver -- among backs with at least 40 targets, he was 9th in Target NEP per target and 10th in Reception NEP.
Conner regressed significantly as a rusher in an injury-riddled 2019 season. He was 23rd in Rushing Success Rate and 36th in Rushing NEP per carry, he did, however, score 7 times in 10 games. That said, he still excelled as a receiver, placing fourth among backs -- with at least 35 targets -- in Target NEP per target, ninth in Reception NEP per reception, and ninth again in Reception Success Rate.
Where to Draft Conner?
A clean bill of health and Big Ben returning in 2020 after missing 14 games should provide a large enough boost to consider Conner higher than his current ADP. That's especially the case in PPR leagues. In the last two seasons, Conner's 89 receptions in 23 games are one behind Gurley's 90 catches in 29 games and almost double Ingram's 47 receptions in 27 games -- both players are currently going ahead of him.
He averaged 14.8 PPR points per game in 2019 and finished seventh overall among running backs in 2018 with 21.5 points per game. Despite missing three games in 2018, he finished sixth at the position with 280 total PPR points and seventh in standard scoring with 225 fantasy points. All of that production is possible again with Roethlisberger returning and a lack of proven offensive weapons for Pittsburgh's offense.
Conner is a realistic option to finish as the RB10 or better after his career-low year as a starter in 2019.
Is There a Handcuff Worth Owning?
The Steelers running back room will feature quadruplets in 2020 -- with Conner, Samuels, Snell, and McFarland. Which of the three bench backs to Conner is worth owning?
Snell Jr. faced eight-men in the box 39.81% of the time, per NFL NextGen Stats, which ranked second behind Tevin Coleman (40.15%). Despite that, he finished with just six fewer successful rushes than Conner on eight fewer carries. His Rushing NEP per play (-0.04) was ahead of both Conner (-0.14) and Samuels (-0.15). However, Snell was irrelevant in the passing game -- he saw just four targets --, and that's where Samuels stepped up.
Samuels played in 14 games in 2019 and was targeted 57 times, catching 47 of them. Neither Samuels and Snell scored more -- finding their way to the end zone just a combined four times, compared to Conner's team-high seven.
McFarland Jr. was a touchdown machine at Maryland. He scored 12 times on 245 carries over two seasons. McFarland only caught 24 passes in two seasons there, so his role with Pittsburgh will likely be limited to short-yardage and goal-line situations. None of that is likely to result in much fantasy value.
Take Conner ahead of his ADP, and keep your eye on Samuels as a PPR-threat if Conner goes down. Nevertheless, unless something changes, none of the handcuffs are worth drafting unless your league has a deep bench.