With the NFL landscape changing by the minute, players like Pittsburgh Steelers RB James Conner begin the process of finding a new landing spot as free agency approaches. Now that we have a bit more clarity on backfield situations, where are some plausible landing spots for James Conner to select during free agency in 2021?
While a fan favorite of the Steelers, injuries have been the narrative of RB James Conner
We all know the backstory of James Conner and the fight he had with leukemia. A guy from Erie, PA, went to the University of Pittsburgh and played his college games in the stadium that would eventually be his home for the next four years. It’s something that even Hollywood would reject as a script for being too implausible.
He saw limited work as the backup to Le’Veon Bell in 2017, rushing for only 144 yards on 32 carries. Where he won over the entire nation was during the drama-filled 2018 season. While the media was consumed with playing “Where in the World is Le’Veon Bell?” James Conner was putting in work on the field.
RB James Conner played in 13 games for the Steelers, rushing 215 times for 973 yards and scored 12 touchdowns while adding 55 receptions on 71 targets for 497 yards and another score. His sophomore performance earned him a Pro Bowl selection, capping off his best year to date.
In 2019, injuries crept up to James Conner. He appeared in just 10 games in 2019, rushing 116 times for 464 yards and scoring 4 touchdowns.
In Week 2 against Seattle, Conner injured his knee and exited the game in the third quarter. Then in Week 8, he left again with a shoulder injury which kept him out until Week 11, where he left with, you guessed it, a shoulder injury.
The Steelers play-calling did RB James Conner no favors as he pursues a new landing spot
In his contract year with free agency approaching, James Conner couldn’t capture the same magic of his sophomore season. In his 13 games, Conner rushed 169 times as the featured back for 721 yards and 6 touchdowns. He also added 35 receptions on 43 targets for 215 yards.
In 2020, Conner suffered an ankle injury in Week 1 and tested positive, landing him on the NFL reserved list. Later on, he dealt with a quad injury which cost him Week 15. However, his biggest hurdle was the offensive scheme that would have made Chuck Noll, Myron Cope, and Art Rooney roll over in their graves.
Up to Week 7, James Conner was the featured back, and he saw a workload that reflected it. He had 75 carries (15 per game) and averaged 18 total touches per game for 90 yards. Following Week 7 against the Tennessee Titans, however, Ben Roethlisberger attempted 443 passes in 10 games. That’s a 16-game pace of 709 attempts.
James Conner, Benny Snell, and the rest of the RBs rushed only 153 times combined during this stretch. That’s an average of 15.3 rushes per game and a 75/25 split. There is not another team that was close to the Steelers during this time.
James Conner almost never had a shot to prove himself in his final season as free agency approached. We will soon have an answer if the 31 other NFL teams share this same thought.
A reduced 2021 salary cap will heavily impact potential landing spots for RBs like James Conner
Due to lost revenue of the 2020 season, the NFL salary cap took a massive hit. Adam Schefter recently reported the 2021 salary cap will be $182.5 million.
Because of this, teams will be cash-strapped and have to make difficult decisions regarding veterans and how bullish they can be in free agency. The one position that will have the most significant impact is the running back position. With the NFL moving towards more committee-style approaches, fewer players are getting bell-cow contracts despite their talent.
Now that Green Bay Packers RB Aaron Jones and Seattle Seahawks RB Chris Carson are both hitting the market, James Conner is likely the third-most valuable running back looking for a new landing spot in free agency. The difference will be their price tags, as Conner’s injury history will play a large role.
As he hits free agency, where are some potential landing spots for James Conner in 2021?
While cash-strapped, the Pittsburgh Steelers could still end up being the landing spot for RB James Conner in free agency
While not likely, it could happen, but it would require a very dry market for Conner. The team never seemed willing to re-sign him and have selected running backs in the previous two drafts. It is likely they go three for three.
If James Conner does come back, it would likely be a one or two-year deal that is very team-friendly. According to Spotrac, the Steelers have $6.11 million in cap and several needs. While not probable, it is plausible.
The Miami Dolphins are a logical landing spot for James Conner
They have cap space, a need at RB, and enter a window to make serious noise in the AFC East. Miami has the ninth-most spending space in the NFL.
Going into the 2020 season with questions at the position, Miami deployed several running backs. Of those, the most successful was Myles Gaskin, a 2019 seventh-round pick from Washington. Gaskin played just 10 games and led the Dolphins in rushing with 584 yards on 142 carries, adding another 388 yards on 41 receptions with 5 touchdowns.
Miami has consistently been linked to one of the top running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft at No. 18. Odds are both Najee Harris from Alabama and Clemson RB Travis Etienne will be available. However, signing James Conner in free agency would allow them to use that crucial pick on other needs. While the fit does make sense, it’s just as likely the Dolphins pursue Aaron Jones.
Are the Seattle Seahawks back in the running back market in free agency?
The Seattle Seahawks have released Chris Carson, and now their backfield is in limbo. Rashaad Penny was a first-round selection in 2018 but has never lived up to expectations. He also tore his ACL late in 2019 and only saw 11 carries in 2020. Behind him, it is a mismatch between Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas.
Pete Carroll could view James Conner as the majority rusher in a committee approach and pursue him in free agency.
James Conner could see the New York Jets as a landing spot during the 2021 free agency period
Adam Gase is gone, and Robert Saleh needs help at the running back position. The Jets have plenty of cash to throw to help take the pressure off Sam Darnold or whoever will play quarterback. Currently, the organization sits third in projected cap space at $69.88 million.
The offensive line needs work. Say the Jets take one more shot with Sam Darnold and use the pick to take Penei Sewell. Pairing him with Mekhi Becton, the offensive line gets a whole lot better.
If they do go quarterback with the second-overall pick as many expect, both Justin Fields and Zach Wilson will need a running back to rely on as they adjust to the NFL. James Conner could be a reliable option for the Jets and would be a considerably cheaper option than Aaron Jones.
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