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Conner Risk Factors

by • April 16, 2019

Overall ADP: 1.12

Running back ADP: RB9

Everyone has a different theory about the first-round draft strategies.  Mostly, my draft strategy is “don’t screw it up.”  I draft for safety in the first round while consciously applying higher risk to the picks later in the draft. And that’s why I’m not going to pick James Conner, a player with a current ADP at the end of the first round.

There’s real risk with James Conner… risk that’s being overlooked by most drafters.

The biggest threat to Conner is Jaylen Samuels—both because of Samuel’s unique skillset and because Conner has left the door open to questions about his ability. 

Quietly, I believe Conner is facing a training camp battle with Samuels for the starting job.  And, even after winning it, I fear that Samuels will be nipping at his heels, waiting to capitalize if Conner posts a few underwhelming performances.

Let’s put some numbers behind my assertion.

Risk No. 1:  Conner’s second-half regression

Conner was terrific in the first half of last year.  But the second half of the season saw take a step backwards in nearly every measurable way.

Comparing Conner’s games 1-8 against games 9-16:

  • Conner’s touches per game dropped from 24 to 16.
  • Conner’s yards per game dropped from 136 to 77.
  • Conner’s touchdowns per game dropped from 1.1 to 0.6.
  • Conner’s yards per carry dropped from 4.7 to 4.1.
  • After missing zero games in the first half of the season, Conner missed three in the second half.

Was Conner’s second-half regression the result of a long season? Did defenses figure him out? Something else? Does the reason even matter?

Risk No. 2: Jaylen Samuels

We got long looks at Jaylen Samuels in Conner’s three missed games last year. In those games, Samuels’ starts were more effective than Conner’s starts.

  • Samuels averaged two more touches
  • Samuels averaged 32 more yards
  • Samuels averaged 1.2 additional yards per carry
  • A converted tight end, Samuels’ receiving numbers were even better than Conner’s (also a solid receiving back). Samuels caught 100% of the passes thrown to him, averaging an extra catch and 12 receiving yards more than Conner.

Granted, Samuels only started three games, so his sample size is admittedly small.

Also worrisome for Conner owners, Samuels has room to improve in his second year. Last year was his first season as a running back.  He’ll come into this training camp has a far more polished runner than last year.

Here’s a major x-factor for you to consider as well. The Steelers’ new running backs coach, Eddie Faulkner, coached Samuels at North Carolina State. While together, Samuels was a workhorse for Faulkner, setting the schools all-time reception record with 202 catches, while earning All-ACC honors twice.

Needless to say, their shared history can only help Samuels.

Risk No. 3:  Steelers backups are worthless

On many NFL teams, the backup runner gets enough work to be a viable fantasy starter.  Or at least a bye-week plug-and-pray option. Not in Pittsburgh. Mike Tomlin’s backup runners get almost zero action.

Last year, the immediate backup to the starter averaged 2.8 total touches, 11 total yards, and 0.1 total touchdowns per game. 

You get nothing if Conner rides pine. Nothing.

Risk No. 4: The loss of Antonio Brown hurts everyone in Pittsburgh

The loss of Antonio Brown hurts the entire Steelers offense.  It means fewer first downs. Fewer trips across the 50-yard line. Fewer trips into the red zone.  Fewer carries at the stripe.

And most importantly, it means opponents can devote more resources to stopping the Steelers running game. Roll all this together, and there’s just too must risk in James Conner for my taste.