It’s been quite a couple years for the Steelers’ James Conner. Beating cancer. Conner then took over for Le’Veon Bell and rushed 215 times at a respectable 4.5 YPC clip and scoring a combined 13 TDs in 2018. Then 2019 rolls around, and he suffers a bunch of different injuries and ends up having a subpar season.
Conner rose to the occasion in 2018, let us down in 2019, but can he bounce back in 2020?
Conner grew up in Erie, PA, playing RB and defensive lineman (scary combo) for his high school team. In his senior year, he rushed for 1,680 yards on 155 carries (10.8 YPC) and 26 TDs, which got him invited to the University of Pittsburgh.
In his freshman season at Pitt, he played in 12 of 13 games and led the team in rushing with 799 yards and 8 TDs. In his sophomore campaign, he led the ACC in rushing yards (1,765) on 298 attempts (5.9 YPC) and set an ACC record with 26 rushing TDs.
During his junior season at Pittsburgh, he tore the MCL in his right knee. The MCL tear must have been a Grade 3, which means that ligament is torn completely off the bone because he required season-ending surgery. Luckily Conner managed to avoid any further damage, including possible ACL tear, which often accompanies a severe MCL tear.
This part of the story is remarkable. While Conner was rehabbing from knee surgery, he was struggling due to excessive fatigue. He went to the doctors for evaluation, and the medical team did a chest X-ray, and they found a large tumor in his chest.
If this tumor wasn’t found, which eventually diagnosed as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, there was a good chance Conner was going to die shortly. The cancer was surrounding his heart, and without detection, the doctors said he probably had less than a couple of weeks left to live. Wait; what? That’s crazy.
So what is Hodgkin’s Lymphoma? Essentially it’s a cancer of the lymphatic system (the body’s drainage system) that starts with persistent fatigue, fevers, night sweats, unexplained weight loss, and enlarged lymph nodes around the body.
You’re probably thinking I’ve never heard of the lymphatic system before, well, yes, you have. Ever hear of the spleen, or the tonsils & adenoids? Those are part of the body’s lymphatic system to help clean and trap diseases.
Conner underwent 12 rounds of aggressive chemotherapy over the next couple of months, and by May of 2016, he was deemed cancer-free!
The hardest part about getting back to reality after surviving cancer and subsequent chemotherapy is usually the rebuilding of muscle, strength, and power that was zapped by the cancer-killing medicines.
Impressively, Conner was able to not only regain his lost weight, energy, and strength, but he managed to play in Pittsburgh’s season-opener less than three months after being deemed cancer-free. Warrior. Playing in 13 games his senior season, Conner averaged 5.1 YPC, rushing for 1,092 yards, 16 TDs, and reeling in 21 passes for 302 yards and another 4 TDs.
At 6’1 ½” and 233 lbs, Conner ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Scouts projected Conner as a fifth or sixth-round selection. However, exceeding expectations, Conner was a third-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Conner only contributed a little during his rookie season and suffered the same knee injury that required surgery just two years prior, a torn MCL in his right knee. Just like the last time, Conner underwent surgery in December and headed into the 2018 season with a lot of question marks.
In the 2018 season, Conner was the next man up to Bell. However, that all changed in training camp when Bell decided to hold out the ENTIRE season over a contract dispute. Conner became the steal of the draft, by rushing 215 times for 973 yards (4.5 YPC), 12 TDs, and added 55 receptions for 497 yards and another TD. Conner was able to turn his 14th round ADP into a first-round selection in 2019.
However, Conner suffered some injuries in 2018. He suffered a concussion in Week 10 but was able to clear it before the next game, and then a high-ankle sprain in Week 13. The injury usually takes about 3-6 weeks to return-to-play, which caused him to miss three weeks, and he was able to return in Week 17.
Heading into the 2019 season for Conner, he was the clear-cut RB1, but the offense around him had changed a bit, as Antonio Brown left for the Raiders/Patriots/FA, and Bell with the Jets. Then Ben Roethlisberger suffered his season-ending elbow injury, and Juju Smith-Schuster struggled. Also, Conner never could maintain consistency with his injuries being in abundance.
Conner injured his knee in week 2, but this injury was mild, and he was able to play the following week. Then in Week 4, he suffered an ankle injury, which he was able to play in the next week. Then in Week 7, Conner suffered a quadriceps injury that forced him to leave after the third quarter. Again ten days later, he’s suited up in the next game. In eight weeks, Conner suffered a minor knee injury, ankle injury, and quad injury.
In the next game, Week 8, Connor suffered an injury that cost him two games: with a shoulder sprain or also known as an AC sprain. These usually happen when a player lands hard on their shoulder. X-rays are taken as a precaution to rule out any fractures.
These are particularly painful, especially for people trying to catch the ball out in front of them or lower their shoulders to rush. As expected, Connor missed the next two games with the shoulder injury.
Unfortunately, if not given enough time with these shoulder sprains, they re-injure easily, and that’s what happened to Conner. Upon his return in a week 11, he re-aggravated his shoulder injury and was shut down for Weeks 12, 13, and 14.
Rather than taking the time to rehab this shoulder injury properly, it appears Connor attempted to rush back, and as a result, suffered a setback to the same injury. Ideally, he should’ve been able to return in approximately four weeks, depending on the severity of the damage. After taking only three weeks off, Connor returned in Week 11. He would reinjure his shoulder, causing him to miss three additional games. That’s a total of seven weeks for an injury that traditionally takes about four weeks to return to play.
Connor was able to return in Week 15 and finally looked back to his usual self, with his physical style and running through multiple tackles. His healthiness didn’t last long as he suffered a new injury, this time to the thigh in Week 16. After leaving the game prematurely, and would miss Week 17, as his season ended disappointingly. Conner played in ten games, rushing for 464 yards and four touchdowns. He also added 34 receptions for 251 yards and three scores.
As of early June, James Conner has an ADP of 47 overall and an RB22, which is a vast difference from his 2019 ADP of an RB7. Conner finished as the RB33 in 2019.
For the 2020 season, the major sticking point for Conner is his injury history, but the Steelers will continue to use him as the focal point of the offense when it comes to the running game.
Conner ranked 13th in Rushing Success Rate and 15th in Rushing Net Expected Points per carry, while also scoring 12 times. Not only is Conner successful running the ball, but he also utilized in the receiving department. He caught 34 of 38 targets last season, even though that was down from his 71 targets and 55 receptions of 2018.
His blocking upfront is a top-tier group, but the 2019 season was not as good as 2018. They block in a zone-hybrid offensive scheme and are led by center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro. Left guard is vacated by Ramon Foster, who retired and will be a position battle between rookie Kevin Dotson and Stefen Wisniewski. Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva man the tackles.
At wide receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster is healthy after battling injuries all-season, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson return. Rookie Chase Claypool is a second-round choice by the Steelers. Pittsburgh also brought in Eric Ebron from the Colts as a free agent, and Vance McDonald remains.
Backing up Conner will be Jaylen Samuels, who is a gadget back while Benny Snell returns as a bowling ball. Anthony McFarland was drafted in the fourth round and can take over Snell as he is a more talented back.
Ben Roethlisberger is just too old, and injuries have taken their toll, so expect less passing from Pittsburgh than in the past. The majority of those increased carries will go to Conner, but the Steelers will be cautious, especially if they plan to sign him after the season is complete.
Sports Injury Predictor have not calculated their risk for him yet for the 2020. When it is added I will at it here.
My injury risk score for Connor in 2020 is high at a 7.5. He is unlikely to find his way onto any one of my (Dr. Morse) teams unless it’s at a discount. He is simply too risky and unable to stay healthy for long periods despite having the volume, a top-tier offense, and dual-threat ability.
The return of Big Ben will be helpful for Connor’s upside, and if he can stay healthy has top-ten running back potential. Unfortunately, he has not been able to prove that he can stay healthy, will this be the year?
Despite recent photos of him looking massive, my (Dr. Morse) concern for Connor in 2020 is significant. He seems to suffer from multiple different injuries, including numerous setbacks to the same injuries (knee, shoulder).
These types of athletes scare me (Dr. Morse), as they tend to ignore their body or the training staff, leading to either repeat injury or a new injury, usually compensatory.
The injury risk is high for Conner, but he has the ability and the floor to finish again as an RB1. Start shopping for him around RB20 and loop around and pick up McFarland late in the draft as his hand-cuff.
Injury Risk: High. 7.5/10.
|Projected Missed||Probability of injury per game ?||Probablity of injury in the season ?|
|Dec 22, 2019||Leg Quad Strain||Conner sustained the quad injury in the second quarter of the game vs. the New York Jets. He missed the final game of the season|
|Oct 28, 2019||Shoulder A/C Joint Sprain||Conner suffered an AC joint shoulder injury late in the Week 8 win over the Dolphins. He missed 5 games|
|Jul 30, 2017||Shoulder A/C Joint Sprain||Mike Tomlin said it appears to be minor.|