Earlier this week Pro Football Focus selected the best bounce-back candidates for 2020 on each of the NFL’s 32 teams. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, PFF chose wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, noting that Smith-Schuster “enjoyed plenty of success in 2017 and 2018” when Antonio Brown was drawing more than his share of attention on the other side of the field. But when Smith-Schuster was called upon to become WR1, “that’s where things went south.”
“A combination of poor quarterback play that gave him a far lower rate of accurate targets, nagging injuries and a brighter spotlight led to him failing to place among the top 25% of wide receivers in PFF grade,” notes writer Anthony Treash, referring to Smith-Schuster. “The jury is still out on whether he can climb to that elite WR1 tier. Regardless, he could bounce back in 2020 if he stays healthy and gets a back-in-form Ben Roethlisberger.”
All of that is true, but Smith-Schuster’s total targets may be somewhat limited by the wealth of young talent the Steelers now have at wide receiver. For one, there’s Diontae Johnson, who showed No. 1 receiver potential as a rookie; then there’s presumptive No. 3 receiver James Washington, who flashed starter-like ability during the second half of last year. Finally, there’s rookie second-round pick Chase Claypool, a great draft pick who possesses a rare combination of size and speed—and huge upside potential.
A less obvious-candidate for Steelers bounce-back player of the year is tight end Eric Ebron—less obvious because he wasn’t with Pittsburgh last year. Accustomed to catching passes from the likes of Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck, Ebron’s production with the Indianapolis Colts took a nosedive last year when he produced just 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns in 11 games. This as compared to 2018, when he hauled in 66 passes for 750 yards and an eye-popping 13 touchdowns. While his career catch percentage of 62.9 percent is a concern, he could team up with Claypool to present readily exploitable mismatches for Roethlisberger in the red zone.
Yet the team’s single-biggest bounce-back candidate for 2020 is running back James Conner, who rushed for only 464 yards and amassed just 251 receiving yards in 2019. While there’s a portion of the fan base that remains haunted by the ghost of Le’Veon Bell, it’s easy to forget that Conner was a Pro Bowler in 2018, rushing for 973 yards and catching 55 passes for 497 more, recording 13 total touchdowns.
Now that Conner is healthy again and in the best shape of his life, it’s easy to envision him having his finest NFL season to date. First, we know that head coach Mike Tomlin is a ‘feature-runner type-guy,’ one who prefers to have an RB1 handle almost all of the workload. Second, we know that the Steelers want to run the ball better—and more often—than they did last year, so Roethlisberger doesn’t end up throwing 600+ passes as he attempts to come back from elbow surgery. Third, Conner is in his prime and in a contract year; in fact, he’s one of the team’s top 5 pending unrestricted free agents entering 2021, so if there’s any year he’s going to have a monster season it’s probably now.
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