NFL Analyst Warns of ‘Mistake’ Over Ex-Steelers RB James Conner


Getty Images James Conner reacts on the field.

Before you can even bat an eyelash, NFL free agency will be here. And, as Bleacher Report’s Brad Gagnon reminds us in NFL Free Agents Most Likely to Be Overpaid in 2022 Offseason, it’s also the time of year where teams overpay to sign players at positions of need.

One of those players is one all Pittsburgh Steelers fans are familiar with — running back James Conner.

The Arizona Cardinals signed the 26-year-old in April 2021 to a one-year $1.75 million deal, per Spotrac, and he’s been lighting up the scoreboard since the season began. Through 11 games, Conner has a league-high 12 touchdowns. That, Gagnon points out, is what could tempt a team to overpay for Conner’s services in 2022.

“Conner has already scored a league-high 12 touchdowns even though he’s started only one game and has never been considered the No. 1 option in the Arizona backfield,” Gagnon said. “Chase Edmonds’ ankle injury has opened the door for Conner to take over as the every-down back for the next few weeks, but he’s had a red-zone role even with Edmonds healthy.

That touchdown total alone should get Conner enough attention to land a solid long-term deal in free agency, at least in running back terms. But that might be a mistake.

Touchdown totals can be deceiving and circumstance-based. He had 12 with the Steelers in 2018, but he combined for only 10 over the next two years. He has also fumbled twice on 138 touches and is averaging a career-low 3.9 yards per carry.”

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Did Steelers Make a Mistake Letting Conner Walk?

Pittsburgh was ready to move on from the running back after two seasons wrought with ineffectiveness and injuries. When Conner hit free agency last March 2021, he finished his four-year Steelers career with 2,302 rushing yards, 963 receiving yards, and 26 touchdowns (per Pro Football Reference).

Conner enjoyed a career year courtesy of Le’Veon Bell’s 2018 contract dispute. The Steelers named Conner the starter when Bell sat out the season, and he responded with 973 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns.

Only after Conner became a touchdown machine in Arizona did Steelers fans and pundits wonder whether the team made the right decision by not re-signing him. It was evident that Pittsburgh had their sights on drafting a running back and, once they had Najee Harris, there was really no room in their offensive scheme for Conner. While, in hindsight, it would be great to have Conner punching it in from the goal line, that’s just not how the Pittsburgh Steelers roll. Head coach Mike Tomlin believes firmly in a featured runner, not a rotational system. Had they kept Conner, he’d only be warming the bench — just as Benny Snell, Jr. and Kalen Ballage are right now.

Furthermore, much like he was with the Steelers in 2018, Conner is a product of a top-10 offensive line in Arizona. When Pittsburgh had a first-ranked line, Conner put up stellar numbers. As the unit’s performance declined, so did Conner’s.

This season, even a beast like Najee Harris is having a hard time gaining yards, and he’s 10 times the back that Conner is. According to Pro Football Focus, Pittsburgh’s offensive line ranks 28th. Most of Harris’ yards are coming after contact — 2.5 of 3.7 per attempt — as none of the Steelers starters have a PFF run-blocking grade above 66.0.

Off To Division Foe?

When projecting the needs of all 32 NFL teams heading into the offseason, PFF listed running back as a top need for Steelers rival Baltimore Ravens. With Conner set to hit free agency again in 2022, he could very well wind up in Baltimore facing his former team (at least) twice a year.

What position does PFF note as the biggest need for Pittsburgh? You guessed it — quarterback. Wrote Brad Spielberger:

“As for the quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger has had a remarkable career, but at this point, all he is doing is causing fans to forget about those glory days. Out of 34 quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks, Roethlisberger’s 56.5 passing grade ranks 32nd. Roethlisberger has thrown short of the first-down marker on 60.5% of passes — the highest rate in the NFL. His average time to throw of 2.3 seconds is the quickest in the NFL because he is too immobile to evade pressure. He is quite simply not physically capable of being an elite NFL quarterback at this stage in his career.”

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