James Conner Watches As Rookie Class Of RBs Produces On Field

When he got the phone call late on the second day of the draft from a 412 number, running back James Conner couldn’t be happier knowing that he was about to become a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and continue his professional career on the same field on which he played his college ball.

But he also knew, no doubt, that he wouldn’t be thrown into the fire, working behind Le’Veon Bell, who is one of the few true workhorses at the running back position in today’s game. Conner would certainly not be overworked—but it would also be a struggle for him to even get on the field.

On the offensive side of the ball, the third-round draft pick has seen just 24 snaps over the course of the first six games, officially, which works out evenly to exactly four snaps per game. Bell, in comparison, already has over 300 snaps.

He knows, I’m sure, where he compares in terms of workload to the other rookie running backs in the league. As a matter of fact, the two running backs leading the league in rushing yardage at the moment are both from the 2017 NFL Draft class, including fellow third-round pick Kareem Hunt. Fourth-overall selection Leonard Fournette is second in rushing.

But they are not the only rookies toting the rock. Dalvin Cook, despite his season-ending injury, was an instant starter as second-round pick. Joe Mixon has had to share the workload in Cincinnati, but is still the primary ball-carrier.

There are, in fact, 16 rookie running backs who have earned more carries than has the Pittsburgh backup. There is Samaje Perine in Washington; Tarik Cohen in Chicago; D’Onta Foreman in Houston; Chris Carson in Seattle; Aaron Jones in Green Bay; Elijah McGuire and Wayne Galleman among New York teams; Christian McCaffery in Carolina; Matt Breida in San Francisco; Corey Clement in Philadelphia; and Alvin Kamara in New Orleans.

All of these players—plus two rookie quarterbacks—have run the ball more than Conner this season. Actually, significantly more. All 18 of the above-mentioned players, including the two rookie quarterbacks, have at least 25 rushing attempts.

Conner has 14, but thanks in large part to a couple of 10-plus-yard runs mixed in, he is averaging a healthy 4.9 yards per carry for 69 total yards—even if only one of them went for a first down.

Still, only five of his 14 rushes to date have been successful plays. And he showed that he still has work to do before he can be trusted in pass protection. He has even been passed over by Terrell Watson for short-yardage work, with the first-year back converting three times on third and short.

It’s clear that Conner may not yet be suited for an extended workload. But if the offense is going to focus on the ground game, and the blocking is going to improve, then it might make sense to get him more touches, to lessen Bell’s workload, and sharpen his skills for when they might be needed down the road.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Conner has produced when given the chance, but through no fault of his own, he has the league’s best RB ahead of him on the depth chart. If Bell were to miss some time, there is sure to be some sort of drop off in other aspects (pass blocking, dump offs) but as far as running the football I think Conner should be ok.

  • Bill

    The Steelers recent history with backup running backs is that they get very few touches. Bell is a great back so he rarely gets a blow. Would be nice and possibly beneficial to the team if the staff figured out how make some use of Conner or whoever the back up is.

  • Steeler Nation!

    He needs to learning all the pass protections and be ready. Bell’s history says he could be gone at a moments notice. I would be in favor of Conner getting 5 carries or so a game to limit Bell’s exposure. Also, with the rookies coming in able to pile up yardage, doesn’t that make everyone question why we would ever pay a RB Over $12M a year?

  • falconsaftey43

    There is a valid point, but don’t forget that there are a decent number of RB draft busts as well.
    2010-2014 draft rounds 1-3 these are some of the not so great RBs taken.
    Isaiah Pead, Ryan Williams, LaMichael James, David Wilson, Alex Green, Montario Hardesty, Montee Ball, Bishop Sankey, Knile Davis, Mikel Leshoure, Charles Sims, Jahvid Best, Tre Mason, Christine Michael, Shane Vereen, Bernard Pierce, Daniel Thomas, Toby Gerhart, Trent Richardson, Stevan Ridley, Ryan Williams, Ronnie Hillman.

    Certainly no garuntee that drafting a RB high will result in getting a quality player. I don’t know if investing big money long term into a RB is a great move, but a short term commitment is certainly worth it when you’re getting a known impact player IMO.

  • Conserv_58

    Couldn’t agree more with Mathew’s position that it would serve the Steelers well to give Connor more touches. IMO, the one negative I have with Connor’s running style is that he run’s too upright. It manifests itself when he’s about to get tackled. If he doesn’t learn to lower his pads he’s going to get Mendenhalled.

  • Ravens Team Gynecologist

    No need to take Bell off of the field at all, but we do have short yardage back now. Not really sure where Conner fits here, or what the plan was since they had planned on resigning Bell. But who knows, he may be the #1 back next season if Steelers opt not to tag Bell again.

  • francesco

    I don’t see why Conner and Watson cannot see more action? Mind boggling for sure.

  • MC

    I want to see more touches for Connor and Watson not because I think Bell should get less but because I want to see more rushing by this team and thus more snaps for both will come as a result. This team is at their best when they control the time of possession and establish the run game.
    Maybe don’t keep Connor in for pass protection all that much though.

  • Andrew

    My dream is to be up by 10 going into the 4th quarter. Bell already has 150 total yards. Conner and Watson come in and share runs 65-35. Add 100 total rushing yards between the two with another touchdown.

  • TrappenWeisseGuy ;

    I know it’s early but he really hasn’t impressed me,either with his running style or his physique. I was expecting a Blount type of back, not a guy running to the outside all the time.

  • Matt Manzo

    I think he was prepared to have this season be a learning one, with the chance to start if Bell went down. I sure would love to see more of him. He’s faster than I thought and once the game slows down for him he should start hitting holes!
    I’m not sure what needs to improve, but he seems to get tripped up easily. I wish he had Bettis’ feet!

  • Iulo

    I see your point… maybe its just the play… lets see in next years…
    he is however a different runner and you should like it, I mean, three completely different runners in the team with Bell/Conner/Watson… that’s pretty difficult for a defense

  • Axe Skot

    It would be nice to see the Steelers actually put a “lesser” team away early, so that he could get some extended playing time.

  • Axe Skot

    Any player could be gone at a moments’ notice. Steelers offense is Bell at times, you saw what happened when he was injured. He’s a great player so you play him as much as needed to win football games. That is why you play, right? Everyone would be screaming bloody murder if they pulled Bell and lost because of it. I think you’ll see more Conner, but I’m not going to pound the table for more playing time for him.

  • Axe Skot

    Who was the AFC Offensive player of the week? Does Brown come out of the game? Why would you take Bell out, except in the case of a blowout, particularly as he gets better as the game goes on? Bell doesn’t need many breathers, if any at all. You want your best players on the field, period.

  • francesco

    I want to see more of Conner and Watson. I want to know if it is the OL creating the holes or LBell’s vision? The problem is also that the Steelers cannot put a team away early so that we can try looking at substitution in the RB position.
    My desire has been to run the ball more especially now that Ben has not looked like his old self.

  • Steeler Nation!

    Oh I agree he’s probably worth the short term cost. Unless he has another significant injury, I would be in favor or using the tag again next year. Beyond that, not so much.

  • Steeler Nation!

    Deangelo Williams replaced Bell when he was suspended or injured. And there was very little drop off until he we got down to our #3. Even Fitz and the other dude (sometimers disease) did well vs the Bengals in playoffs. Fitz’s fumble cost us divisional round game. Had Williams OR Bell and Brown been healthy, that team may have been in the SB. All this to say-Bell is a good player but it’s the O line that carries this team. When they play well, they take over games. And Bell isn’t the only RB capable of piling up yards behind them.