It is never an easy task to rank an entire position group in the NFL. Situation, scheme, and so much more either aid or hurt an individual player, so these lists are highly variable and extremely subjective. PFN Senior NFL Writer Matt Williamson gave it a go at ranking the top 25 running backs in the NFL for 2020. That includes Pittsburgh Steelers RB James Conner, who found himself a part of the rankings for 2020.
So, just where did Conner get placed, and is he correctly placed?
Breaking down James Conner’s running back ranking for 2020
Williamson, who hosts a weekly spot on Steelers Nation Radio, certainly has seen a lot of Conner. In his rankings, Conner comes in ranked as the 16th overall running back in the NFL and 4th in the AFC North behind Nick Chubb, Joe Mixon, and Kareem Hunt.
“Conner fits the typical Steelers type of power back,” Williamson noted. “He has also developed quite well in the passing game as both a pass protector and a receiver out of the backfield. When right, Conner is highly productive and a handful to get on the ground.”
“But that is the rub — staying healthy is the biggest worry here, without question.”
Conner is a unique case on the list for Williamson because of his blend of proven on-field production and injury issues. As he notes, Conner is an extremely talented football player in all facets of his game, but the caveat is if he can stay on the football field to showcase those strengths overall.
Conner’s talent is undeniable
Even just surface-level production from Conner’s breakout 2018 season is impressive. With 13 touchdowns, 55 receptions, and 1,470 total yards, Conner was a phenomenal player for the 13 games he played that season.
Even diving more in-depth, it was impressive to see what Conner did on the ground. Of his 973 rushing yards, 592 of those yards were created by him after contact, as he broke 60 tackles in those 13 games. Both of those figures ranked in the top 10 of the NFL that year. So, while he ran behind a talented offensive line, it is clear Conner held his own here.
Now, let’s scroll forward to 2019, where Conner had a down year compared to his 2018 season. Even with his yards per carry, broken tackles, and overall production across the board dipping, Conner was still 7th in the NFL in forced missed tackles per touch. He was actually on pace to rack up 480 yards after the catch, which would have been 7th best in the NFL.
With the offense lacking an effective passing attack that defenses had to respect, they stacked the box against the run at will, thus leaving Conner little to no room to work. Conner ran against a stacked front 27.6% of the time, which was 8th most in the NFL. That should change significantly in 2020 with the return of Ben Roethlisberger.
Conner is an all-around running back that makes an impact in the running and passing game. That extends to pass protection as well, where he has proven to be strong and dependable. Over the past two seasons, Conner has only been responsible for two total sacks in pass protection.
Conner’s disappointing injury history
Williamson pointed out Conner’s injury history, which dates back to his time at Pitt.
Conner tore his right MCL in his sophomore season at Pitt, against Youngstown State in the opening game of that season. As he was rehabbing that knee injury, he would be diagnosed with cancer, which he would courageously overcome and defeat. Conner would not only overcome those obstacles but come back to full strength on the football field.
Once in the NFL, Conner became the backup to star running back Le’Veon Bell. During his rookie year, Conner would only get some sparse reps, but late in 2017, he would suffer another tear his right MCL. The history of his knee injuries is concerning, as he suffered another minor MCL injury in 2019. He did not miss time in 2019 due to that injury.
After 2017, it was a flurry of injuries that have forced Conner to miss eight games over the past two seasons. In 2018, a concussion forced him to miss one game, while a sprained ankle forced him out for another two games. Conner missed five games in 2019 due to an AC joint sprain in his shoulder and never fully recovered from it even upon his return to the field for the final three weeks of the season.
Overall thoughts on Conner’s ranking
James Conner’s running back ranking for 2020 by Matt Williamson is very fair. The talent, when on the field, is eye-popping. Conner is an impactful running back that makes a difference in the NFL. He can run between the tackles or outside of them and creates yards for himself with superb vision and contact balance. Conner’s soft hands and adept route-running skills give him lots of upside as a receiver as well.
However, Conner’s health, which has an obvious history of fluctuating throughout a season, must be watched. Conner has yet to play a full 16 games healthy in his NFL career. It would be nice to see that change in 2020, but given his history, it is not something I would bet on happening.
Thus, Conner feels like a player that could outplay his spot on this list. It is very much a ‘just in case’ ranking here to put him directly among the middle of the pack. Conner has the opportunity to elevate himself up this list if he can have an entirely healthy season and continue his high stretches of play.