James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
Weight: 233 pounds
(percentile rank among all RBs at the Combine since 1999, courtesy of mockdraftable.com):
40-yard dash: 4.65 seconds (24th)
Vertical: 29 inches (3rd)
Broad: 113 inches (20th)
3-cone: 7.41 seconds*
20-yard shuttle: DNP
*Conner recorded this time at his pro day after not running the drill at the Combine.
Overcoming cancer would probably stand out as a pretty significant accomplishment on most resumes. But Conner managed more than that last fall.
An MCL tear suffered in the opener might have ended his 2015 campaign, but a Hodgkins lymphoma diagnosis assured he would sit.
Conner ran through that affliction like any other enemy defense and returned to the Panthers in 2016, earning 1st-team All-ACC honors. His 20 total scores tied for 7th in the nation and included the 1st 4 receiving TDs of his career. Conner’s 21 receptions ranked just 5th on a Pitt offense that lost star WR Tyler Boyd to the NFL. But the RB went from marginal receiver to important contributor for a team with no player catching more than 36 balls.
Conner handled 40.9% of the team’s rushing attempts – with QB Nathan Peterman the 2nd most frequent rusher – gained 36.7% of the ground yards and scored 44.4% of the rushing TDs.
Two years before, Conner gobbled up a larger chunk of the rush offense while gaining national renown.
He accounted for 50.1% of the team carries, 53.6% of the yardage and 74.3% of the TDs. Conner finished that 2014 campaign 7th in the nation in rushing attempts, 7th in rushing yards and 3rd in ground scores—trailing only Melvin Gordon and Jay Ajayi in the final category. Kenneth Dixon was the only other player to score more total TDs from scrimmage.
The Panther back finished that 2014 season as a 2nd-team AP All-American and the ACC’s player of the year. His 26 TDs broke the school record Tony Dorsett had held since 1976.
(Courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com)
Games watched: Virginia Tech, UNC, Virginia Tech (2014), Miami (2014), Iowa (2014)
Conner’s game doesn’t take long to learn. It’s straight power, with absolutely no flash. When he creates yards on his own, it’s by running through tackle attempts.
That 3rd Virginia Tech clip comes from last fall; the previous 2 from 2014. The 2016 version of Conner did look a bit leaner, as well as slightly quicker and more agile. He’s still not going to impress anyone in either of those categories, but any improvement there can only help.
Here’s a clip from 2014 that shows Conner’s slow change-of-direction when he finds the line of scrimmage clogged.
That play probably wouldn’t produce much no matter who your running back, but you can see the lateral agility of a Buick—and not 1 of those sportier new models that fool people in the commercials.
Conner also seems to run a bit high at times, which can be an issue for a taller back like he is. I didn’t see it prove to be a problem in the games I watched, but count on NFL defenses magnifying any weaknesses.
Conner’s capable of staying on the field for passing situations. This negative play at least shows a solid snatch of a high-thrown ball (before the tackle for a loss).
That said, don’t let the loft receiving averages fool you. I certainly haven’t seen all – or even nearly all – of Conner’s receptions. But the bigger plays I did see came on well-blocked screens. I didn’t see any WR-type sets or looks.
You’d have to be a mean spirit – or at least a jilted ex-lover – to not be rooting for this guy. But Lance Zierlein’s T.J. Duckett comparison is fitting for multiple reasons.
Conner is a straight power back just like the former Spartan, who landed with the Falcons late in 2002’s first round. Unfortunately for the Panther, that type of commodity doesn’t carry nearly as much value in a league that continues to lean more heavily on the pass.
The metrics on both Mockdraftable and PlayerProfiler both point to Bengals RB Jeremy Hill as a strong athletic match. That linked would have looked a lot more promising after Hill’s eye-opening rookie year than it does now. He has spent the past 2 campaigns, however, making that look more like the outlier. Cincinnati has put him on the field for less than 44% of the snaps each of the past 2 years—despite the Hill-Gio Bernard combo dominating backfield touches.
Conner’s best hope is to land in a backfield duo/committee with a light pass-catching complement—behind a strong O-line. He’ll be fun to watch and easy to like in short-yardage (re: goal-line) situations.
Even such an ideal landing would make Conner no better than a 3rd-rounder in dynasty rookie drafts.