2017 NFL Draft Player Profiles: Pitt RB James Conner

We’re back again breaking down prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft, set to kick off on April 27th through the 29th. Our goal this season is to write reports on at least 150 players and hopefully, as many as 200. It will, of course, have a focus on Pittsburgh Steelers’ wants and needs but we will look big-picture too at the best players in this year’s draft.

If there’s a player you would like us to breakdown, let us know in the comments below. Today, another tight end for you to examine.

James Conner/RB Pittsburgh – 6’2 235

The Good

– Huge frame, one of the biggest in this year’s class
– Not a plodder, shows above average burst for how big he is
– Big lower half, able to run through arm tackles, especially vs DBs, when he gets up to speed
– Eyes and feet are connected, lateral quickness better than expected and a decisive runner in gap and zone schemes
– Work out of backfield increased during career and shows soft hands capable of catching away from his frame
– Willing pass protector who seems to take pride in it
– Inspiring backstory and an easy guy to root for
– High level of production in career, decorated college campaign

The Bad

– Lacks long speed and ability to consistently win the edge, won’t run away from second level defenders and get chased by most linebackers
– Height creates issue for pad level, defenders square to him are able to get low and bring him down, reducing his power
– Doesn’t succeed on the goal line/short yardage as often as you’d think
– Lacks a diverse route tree as a route runner and will need a high degree of development
– No defining trait physically


– Career: 3733 yards rushing, 5.6 YPC, 52 touchdowns
– ACC all-time leader in rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns (56)
– Second in Pitt history in yards and touchdowns trailing only Tony Dorsett
– Beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015, came back to start 2016 season
– 2014 ACC Player Of the Year
– Star running back and defensive end in high school, had 12 sacks senior year

Tape Breakdown

If you’re in the Pittsburgh area, Hail to Pitt, or know college football, you undoubtedly know and love Conner’s story. He beat cancer in 2015 to come back this past year and tear things up in the ACC, making him an easy guy to love and root for. And rightfully so.

But does the tape match up? Yes…and no.

I don’t see him as a plodder. He’s a big guy and sure, he’s not outrunning corners but he isn’t the lumbering guy I saw in someone like Andre Williams, whose NFL career never got off the ground because of his sluggish play (5’11 230). You see the initial burst and ability to get up to speed and get through the second level.

Of course, he gets taken down short of the end zone but you probably could’ve guessed that. The long speed isn’t there but the burst is surprisingly good. So are his feet, which you see in this example back in 2014 against Iowa.

The linebacker jumps into the B gap, Conner cuts inside to the A gap and gets upfield. Another subtle move and he runs through the arm tackle of the safety before finally taken down for a nice gain.

The biggest issue I see in his game is how tall he runs, how high his pad level is. Some of that is expected because he’s a big, tall back. But Conner’s power, which exists in moments, is lost when he isn’t up to speed and when defenders are getting solid, square shots into him. It hurts him a lot on the goal line, an area you’d expect a 235 pound back to succeed. Like here.

Or at the line of scrimmage here, running too high and getting popped in the chest, knocking him back.

He doesn’t consistently fall forward on his runs enough because of that and takes away an area he doesn’t win nearly enough as you would think and hope. And while there is some speed and burst, more than I thought I’d see, it obviously isn’t great relatively speaking, and I wonder exactly what his best trait is.

It’ll be a similar discussion with Conner as there was with Derrick Henry a year ago. But I like Henry’s burst and power more than I do Conner’s. I know I had him in my first 2017 mock for the Steelers and the team does like their backs on the bigger side, but I don’t know if I see potential to be an every down, workhorse back nor do I see enough consistent power in short-area situations to justify the investment.

Projection: Mid Day Three

Games Watched: vs Iowa (2014), vs Penn State, at North Carolina, vs Virginia Tech

Previous 2017 NFL Draft Player Profiles
Deshaun WatsonHaason ReddickMarshon LattimoreCorey ClementTim Williams
Jourdan LewisTakkarist McKinleyBrad KaayaNathan PetermanO.J. Howard
Charles HarrisAlvin KamaraTyus BowserDavid NjokuDeMarcus Walker
Chidobe AwuzieDeShone KizerMarlon MackCameron SuttonZach Cunningham
Corey DavisCarl LawsonPatrick MahomesKareem HuntEvan Engram
Derek RiversRyan AndersonJoshua DobbsJordan LeggettSamaje Perine
Corn ElderBucky Hodges

About the Author

Alex Kozora
Full-time blogger from mom's basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.
  • popsiclesticks

    Derrick Henry had long speed, I was worried about his agility though. But it looks to this point like I was wrong.

  • falconsaftey43

    I’d be ok with Conner in the 5th, but I think we can do better. He would be an everydown back, which is what I want.

    Joe Yearby, RB Miami please.

  • Jeff Papiernik

    Donnell Pumphrey, San Diego St. RB

  • Steelers12

    one my favorites

  • Steelers12

    Joe Mixon looks to be a good RB but i know we will not take him because of his off the field trouble

  • popsiclesticks

    Is it because of what he did or just because it’s on tape? I personally think Tyreek Hill is much worse but I understand a lot of people wouldn’t want him either.

  • popsiclesticks

    That’s a good point but do you think it can help Conner in the red zone?

  • LucasY59

    because Hill was so successful I doubt Mixon falls far, teams will look at his talent and instead of a 2nd rd pick he wont go any later than the 4th (could even go in the 3rd to a team like the hateriots)

  • LucasY59


  • Steelers12

    i would take him regardless but everyone is on their morale high horse nowadays

  • falconsaftey43

    I wouldn’t take him because of what he did. Difference can be, with a guy like Hill, people can convince themselves that he didn’t do it because there is no proof. Think you’d see similar aversion if say a guy had been convicted of doing it, but there was no video. Video just provides proof.

  • LucasY59

    I like that Conner is able to catch out of the backfield, with how much the offense uses Bell as a pass catcher any backup should be somewhat proficient as well (so if they have to go into the game the Offense doesnt have to change drastically)

    Conner is my fav for a couple reasons, he can catch (like I said above) he is faster than you would think for a big guy (will be paying a lot of attention to him at the combine) and I think he could even be a little position versatile (I doubt they make him slim down to 215 like they did with Lev, but it is possible) he could be a backup FB as well, willing blocker, and again pass catcher which are both useful (FB is more likely to catch a pass than run the ball if he actually gets a touch) I also like that he should be a mid/late pick (again depends on his combine performance) but not investing anything higher than a 4th on a RB is probably a good idea for the team)

  • falconsaftey43

    Good college player, but dude is tiny. 169 lbs at the senior bowl. Hope he finds success in the NFL, but it could be really tough at that size.

  • Jason

    so is he faster then Bell, because Bell gets ran down every time

  • Matt Manzo

    I think his best trait is being a 5th round prospect! I’d have no problem taking him there.

  • Boss

    I hope the kid succeeds with all that he has overcome. He’s had to prove many naysayers wrong (and apparently Mr. Kozora as well). Watched this kid run for many yards at Heinze Field and I think he’ll run for many more in the NFL. HAIL TO PITT!!!

  • Ike Evans

    I just came to say H2P

  • Andrew

    5th round pick who, at worst, should be a solid number two with the possibility of becoming a number one. I am hoping this is the RB we take. Should be good late round value.

  • Dan

    I read that he probably should have stayed another year to refine his game and fully return to his playing shape pre-cancer. I can’t blame a running back for declaring early though. Those guys have short careers for a reason.

  • Michelob

    James Conner has a running style any Steelers fan would love. Anyone reading this do yourself a favor and watch some additional games and highlights. He has a stiff arm better than any player in this draft except maybe Fournette.

    I am admittedly biased as a Pitt grad. Conner may be my favorite Panther all time.

  • Hard Row

    Connor is a workhorse and if you give him enough carries, he’ll put up decent stats but nothing special. He’ll be a quality #2 RB but if he has to be your #1, you better have a very good OL or a really scary passing game to open things up for him.

    I think he’ll have a Justin Forsett, or Alfred Morris type career. He’s a better version of Toussaint.

    If the Steelers can get Karlos Williams in shape, he’s a quality #2 RB.

  • Darth Blount 47

    I’ve tried 3 times to add my comment, Alex. I give up…….

    I’d love to know why my comment needs approval. Can you point out the offending word/phrase?????

  • Xclewsive

    Beyond the pass catching his tape reminds me of Lev Bells.

  • Darth Blount 47

    (My comment from 2 months ago):
    James Conner is a good kid. And in today’s NFL, that counts for something. He’s tough. And that’s important. If he faces adversity, I think he’ll put his head down and work. He’s an inspiration. Also, his measurables are VERY Le’Veon Bell. Like, really close. I’ll be interested to see what he runs at the combine. He has very good college production. And… he’s from Erie, which is about 2 hours North of of Pittsburgh, and he played at Pitt. So he’s a hometown type kid. If for some reason we wait in the draft to draft a RB, we could CERTAINLY do a LOT worse than welcoming Conner to the Steelers and allowing there to not be a dry eye in the city as we do.
    (I’m kinda hoping the draft shakes our way and we can grab this kid out of nowhere. He fits. He belongs. He acts like a Steeler.)

  • Steel City Slim

    My favorite pick so far!

  • John

    WELL I guess those were the four positions we cared about. All else is gravy.

  • blue

    Touchdown machine.

  • NinjaMountie

    When you watch him play, even though the times say different, he looks faster than Bell straight line.

  • Sam Clonch

    His combine 40 was .05 seconds slower than Lev’s

  • HeavyMedicine

    This kid prob played at 75%last year. His best football is ahead of him and I can see him becoming more lean and buliking up like LeVeon. I love the pick even though it will be talked about as a reach all offseason until we actually see him play. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter where you are drafted, what’s important is we get the player we want. This kid has been connected to us since he came to Pitt. It’s hard to ignore a work ethic like that especially when you see it every day for years. I believe he will overcome this reach perception like he did cancer! CONNERTIME

  • nutty32

    Still hoping we sign Ryan Matthews once he inevitably becomes a cap cut soon. A stable of Bell, Matthews, & Conner sounds ready for playoff football, injuries be damned.

  • Applebite

    I didn’t really like this pick at that stage, but I understand why they chose him. To me,anyways, Perine was the better selection. But here we are. I’ll throw full support behind Connor from here on out. Let it burn, show us what you got, James.

  • Conserv_58

    First, I like this pick very much because not only was James a very productive football player, he is an outstanding human being. I am especially impressed with his intelligence, his personality and his can-do attitude. For him to have to endure the shock of learning that he had cancer and then have the intense drive and will to overcome it, the way he did, will be an inspiration to everyone else on the team. The fact that he has an infectious and positive personality will reap benefits in the locker room that are immeasurable. The Steelers got themselves a player that will never disappoint them both on and off of the field. He’ll never quit or give up trying to live up to expectations because that’s how he’s wired.

    As for the football player, James was drafted to be a compliment to Le’Veon and to provide another dynamic option. He embodies every positive attribute that being a Steelers type player is and should be. There are fans that will say the Steelers should have drafted a different RB based on physical measurables and a perceived lack of dynamic production by James. To them I say, no RB in this draft class was better suited to fulfill the team’s need for a compliment to Le’Veon than James Connor is.

  • NinjaMountie


  • pittfan

    Maybe I missed something but is DWill not coming back?

  • Geoffrey Benedict

    Bell has lost speed since then. He gets caught now.

  • Geoffrey Benedict

    I think Conner, I think he has the potential for Saxon to turn him into a similar style of runner as Bell, which is what we need, a backup who can come in and have success with the offensive line doing the same thing they do for Bell.

    I like his pass blocking, that’s huge when we have Ben. So glad Kniles Davis won’t be in there for that.

    His upside isn’t Bell’s level, but I think he can be a really good backup for Bell, and if it comes to it, fill in until we get another RB when Bell leaves.

  • Sam Clonch

    Nah, point is Bell was never THAT FAST to begin with. He was 4.60 at the combine.

  • NYBurgh79

    I agree too . I think Perine is a better selection . I would like if the steeler’s FO targeted a ILB or a tight end . But I will also give my full support for Connor . Go steeler’s

  • Thank you for the breakdowns on each player. Great stuff, Alex!

  • Justin Warrenfeltz

    He’s a UFA and Pittsburgh has showed no interest in re-signing him. Not saying they won’t, but there hasn’t been any movement in that direction.