Steelers’ James Conner the Worst Starting RB in the NFL?


Al Bello/Getty Images James Conner of the Pittsburgh Steelers eludes Jordan Jenkins of the New York Jets during a game in 2019.

CBS Sports Network’s Adam Schein loves that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he’s still motivated to win multiple Super Bowls before he retires.

But he finds the offensive talent surrounding Big Ben decidedly lacking.

James Conner & Co.

“You can make the case—and I will say it again—that James Conner is the worst starting running back in the NFL,” said Schein in the following video segment.

Moreover, he doesn’t like any of the other Steelers running backs, saying, “This is as bad as a running back room as you have in the National Football League.”

That’s an exceptionally harsh assessment of Conner—not to mention those who compete to be his backups: Benny Snell Jr., Jaylen Samuels, rookie Anthony McFarland Jr., and recent free-agent acquisition Wendell Smallwood.

Never mind that Conner—who recently confirmed his playing status for 2020—made the Pro Bowl in 2018. Analytics indicate that Conner is among the better backs in the NFL—certainly one of the most elusive.

Ben Linsey of Pro Football Focus recently ranked Conner No. 11 in the NFL in terms of elusiveness, which he defines as the ability to elude would-be tacklers by running over them or avoiding contact entirely.

Linsey notes that in 2018, Conner broke 60 tackles, second only to the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley, despite playing in just 13 games. Even during last year’s injury-plagued campaign, Conner ranked among the best in missed tackles forced per touch, “forcing 19 missed tackles as a receiver on just 34 receptions.”

“Conner may not be a breakaway threat in the open field,” concludes Linsey, “but it’s hard to get a clean shot on him.” Pretty good for a kid who was recruited to college as a defensive end, and played on the same defensive line as Aaron Donald, who now stars for the Los Angeles Rams.

As to the rest of Pittsburgh’s running backs, PFF has the group rated as the 23rd-best unit in the NFL. Not great, but a far cry from the worst group in the league, a dubious honor that PFF has bestowed on the Miami Dolphins.

Schein: Steelers Backup QB Situation is ‘Alarming’

Meanwhile, you may not be surprised to learn that Schein doesn’t like Pittsburgh’s backup QB situation either.

“I think the Steelers’ backup quarterback situation is alarming,” said Schein. “Duck is dreadful…. There’s no depth behind the 38-year-old who is coming off an unprecedented elbow surgery.”

Schein is not alone in either of those sentiments. In fact, one NFL analyst recently identified Pittsburgh’s backup QB situation as one of the biggest roster holes in the NFL. But the reality is that the Steelers don’t have the salary cap room to sign a seasoned NFL backup; anyway the organization wants to give Rudolph the chance to show whether he is Neil O’Donnell—or something more than O’Donnell.

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