It’s tough to have many positive takeaways from the Steelers‘ offense last season as they finished 27th in points per game and 30th in total yards, struggling mightily in the absence of Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. The combination of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges didn’t produce enough consistency to help the offense compete in Pittsburgh, and that significantly impacted James Conner. After two seasons of averaging 4.5 yards per carry, he dropped to 4.0 YPC. Can Conner regain the form that helped him finish as the RB7 in 2018?
— Steelers Depot 🏆👑 (@Steelersdepot) May 21, 2020
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It’s important to note that Conner was only able to play in 10 games last season, which deflated his total numbers on the year. However, his 11.2 fantasy points per game would have only made him the RB20 in PPR leagues – a significant dropoff from his RB7 finish the prior season. Conner fell from 13 total touchdowns in 2018 (13 games) to 7 total touchdowns (10 games). The efficiency concerns can certainly be attributed to poor quarterback play, but should we expect Conner to be the workhorse in 2020?
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I currently have Conner down for just over 200 carries, but I’m not so confident he’ll hit that mark. As I’ll get to shortly, Conner is facing more competition for backfield touches than he ever has since he became the starter in Pittsburgh. I also am not sure Conner can get back to previously elite touchdown numbers as the Steelers have added plenty of competition for red-zone touches this offseason. The offense should improve, however, which is enough to get Conner to low-end RB2 range in my rankings.
James Conner with @AdamSchefter on potentially leaving in free agency:
“It would be hard… The city I got drafted to, and I want to be able to say the city I brought a championship to.”
Through all the criticism, @JamesConner_ has stayed loyal.
— Across The Bridge (@ATBPGH) May 20, 2020
ADP: 39.4, RB18
Auction Value: $16
I’m concerned about James Conner’s fantasy value at his current ADP, which has him being selected ahead of Austin Ekeler, Kenyan Drake, and David Johnson in many leagues. Conner can undoubtedly be a reliable weekly starting running back, but in the third or fourth round, you’re banking on the potential for top-ten upside, which just doesn’t exist, in my opinion.
Conner’s baseline is likely as at least an RB3, but that all depends on how involved other running backs will be in the offense. The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland in the 4th round with an eye toward the future as Conner enters the final year of his rookie contract. Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell are also recent draft picks by this team, and I expect both to be somewhat involved in the offense. You also have to bake in potential missed time due to injuries for Conner as he has missed multiple games in each of his three professional seasons. The Steelers offense should be much improved, so if Conner is on the field, he’ll likely be productive, but there’s a wide range of outcomes here.
If a few things break right for Conner in 2020, he could battle for top-15 upside. In 2018, Conner had 55 receptions in 14 games, so he has an upside in the passing game. It’s also essential to remember Mike Tomlin’s past coaching, which favors a single-back workhorse over an RBBC. Dating back to the days of LeVeon Bell, even D’Angelo Williams and Fitzgerlad Toussant had stretches of 20+ touches when Bell missed games with injuries. In 2018, Conner’s 16-game pace was good for 265 carries for 1,191 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground, as well as 68 receptions for 610 yards and two touchdowns through the air – that surely would have made him a top-five running back in fantasy. It’s hard to imagine the offense returning to that elite level (6th in points scored, 4th in total yards) as Antonio Brown is no longer around, however.
— Fantasy Jabber (@FantasyJabber) May 15, 2020
Pittsburgh Steelers Offense
The Steelers’ offense will look wildly different in 2020 after their offseason additions. James Washington broke out in his sophomore season, and Diontae Johnson had a very productive rookie year – the duo went for 1,415 yards and eight touchdowns combined in 2019. The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland at running back and Chase Claypool at wide receiver, and they also brought in Eric Ebron to be the starting tight end. The breakthroughs of Washington and Johnson, as well as the additions of Claypool and Ebron, likely limit Conner’s touchdown upside in 2020. Ben Roethlisberger is reportedly feeling ready to roll for this coming season. If he can be at his best, it would likely make the entire Steelers offense underrated for fantasy scoring. There’s a wide range of outcomes here, as there is for Conner himself.
— Steelers Depot 🏆👑 (@Steelersdepot) May 18, 2020
Strength of Schedule
The AFC North will present the Steelers with an elite defense they have to take on twice – the Ravens, 4th in points allowed to RBs in fantasy. The Bengals (23rd) and Browns (18th) should be more forgiving matchups in running back defense. Pittsburgh will also take on the Texans (27th), Giants (28th), Jaguars (19th), Redskins (29th), Titans (21st), and Colts (20th) who are some of the worst defenses in terms of fantasy points allowed to running backs. The Broncos (8th), Eagles (14th), Cowboys (10th), and Bills (3rd) were some of the best defenses against running backs last year, so Conner will likely struggle in those games, but there are enough low-end defenses on the Steelers’ schedule that he should be just fine in that regard. The real impact on Conner’s carry count will come from the much-improved Steelers’ defense, which will be one of the best units in the league thanks to T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Stephon Tuitt, Cameron Heyward, and Devin Bush.
Softest projected backfield schedules, per @SharpFootball Analysis:
— John Daigle (@notJDaigle) May 16, 2020
The Steelers had an awful offensive season last year, and Conner only played in 10 games, so it’s hard to use that as any kind of an indicator of his potential for success this year. However, selecting Conner in the first few rounds is likely a major risk due to Ben Roethlisberger being 38 as well as the high level of competition for backfield touches. I can see Conner finishing as a back-end RB1 in 2020, but I would put about a 30% likelihood on that, especially given his history of injuries. I can see Conner falling in a lot of fantasy drafts this season due to the horrible year Pittsburgh is coming off, and there’s certainly an ADP where I would jump to draft him, but he’s not at that point just yet.
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