With 922 yards from scrimmage through seven games—including 212 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-18 victory over the Browns at Heinz Field on Sunday— Steelers second-year running back James Conner is on pace for 2,107 for the season.
Those totals may shock you, given the underdog theme of the early portion of Conner’s NFL career. However, as a highly-decorated college football player for the University of Pittsburgh—AFCA First-Team All-American (2014); ACC Player of the Year (2014); First-Team All-ACC (2014, 2016)—they shouldn’t.
Also, let’s not forget Conner was picked in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, a round that normally comes with expectations of a player starting sooner rather than later. But Conner wasn’t expected to start sooner, and it’s safe to say many didn’t figure he’d even start later.
It’s true that it was hard to envision Conner ever unseating Le’Veon Bell, the two-time First-Team All-Pro and the undisputed champion of workhorse running backs, and few did—but not just because of Bell’s impressive resume.
When Conner was selected, the feel-good chapter was the only part of the story people wanted to read. In-fact, some even went so far as to say that chapter was the only reason Conner was picked as high as he was.
I’m sorry, but no coach is stupid enough to select a player in the third round simply out of pity or because of his medical triumphs. There’s too much at stake, too many jobs and careers on the line—including the coach’s.
No, you select a player in the third round because you envision a time—again, sooner rather than later—when he will help your football team in a major way. In Conner’s case, maybe the Steelers foresaw a time in-which Conner would fill in for Bell thanks to a lengthy absence due to injury or suspension.
Did the Steelers ever envision a time when Conner would be their workhorse for an entire season or multiple campaigns? Possibly.