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Will James Conner sign before the 2021 NFL Draft?

With time running out until the 2021 NFL Draft, rumors surrounding where Steelers RB James Conner will sign have been surprisingly sparse.

Will James Conner sign before the 2021 NFL Draft?
Dec 27, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) runs the ball against Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Darius Leonard (53) during the second quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Having watched numerous running backs sign, free agency rumors surrounding Pittsburgh Steelers RB James Conner have been nearly non-existent. Less than a month away from the 2021 NFL Draft, who are some potential teams that could sign James Conner for the 2021 NFL season?

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James Conner led the Steelers’ 32nd-ranked rushing offense in 2020

Yes, you read that correctly. A team that prided itself on the run and being able to impose its will was the worst rushing team in the NFL. The Steelers rushed for just 1,351 yards (84.3 per game) in 2020. Now, it is not fair to pin this on Conner. He worked with what he was given. The offense just rarely ran the ball.

Up to Week 7, 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 their game against the Tennessee Titans, however, Ben Roethlisberger attempted 443 passes in 10 games — that’s a 16-game pace of 709 attempts.

Conner, Benny Snell, and the rest of the RBs rushed only 153 times combined over the rest of the season. That’s an average of 15.3 rushes per game and a 75/25 split. There is not another team close to the Steelers’ pass/rush ratio during this time.

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. He missed

Conner’s down year and injury history have caused the muted rumors on where he could sign

While injuries have been a concern for Conner, the Steelers held him back far more than any injury could have done. For a player in their contract season, the timing could not have been worse.

Following his breakout 2018 season, where he took over the job during Le’Veon Bell’s holdout, the workload seemed to take its toll on Conner. During the 2019 season, Conner played in just 10 games, rushing 116 times for 464 yards and scoring 4 touchdowns. Conner carries the perception that perhaps the best way to keep him on the field is by keeping him off of it.

The NFL is becoming a league where backfields are split by committees rather than a singular focus. Perhaps this is where Conner could shine when he signs with a new team. Conner would see his touches kept in check as a complementary piece while being one of the more talented “backups” in the NFL, though likely more of a 1A/1B situation.

Any rumors to which teams may sign James Conner before the draft?

While there are no substantive rumors to Conner’s pre-draft landing spot, there are teams with obvious needs at the position.

Miami Dolphins

As much as some Dolphins fans would love to see Najee Harris come off the board at pick No. 18, half the fan base would be upset to see it happen. Anymore, if you go RB in the first round, the selection is ridiculed even if it is a scheme fit. The Chiefs last year was an exception, as Super Bowl champions get to do whatever they want.

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.

If they were to sign Conner, the Dolphins would no longer need to focus on the RB position in the draft and reallocate that pick towards another position of need. Conner would work in tandem with Gaskin along with Salvon Ahmed and versatile player Lynn Bowden Jr.

Arizona Cardinals

As of right now, Chase Edmonds is one of the silent winners of free agency. An efficient rusher in 2020, Edmonds demonstrated pace and versatility as he took over receiving duties from former Cardinal Kenyan Drake. Due to a frenetic pace of play, the Cardinals’ running backs will quickly rack up the touches.

Behind Edmonds is nothing to write home about. Jonathan Ward was on the practice squad last season, and Eno Benjamin never made an appearance in a game.

I expect Arizona to be firmly in the running for one of the running backs in this year’s class. Some have even speculated they could take Alabama’s Najee Harris as early as pick No. 16. However, I find it more likely they look at CB like Greg Newsome II.

Signing Conner to a two-year deal gives the Cardinals flexibility in the draft and bolsters the depth chart. He has also demonstrated proficiency in the passing game — a crucial element of the Cardinals’ offensive scheme.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Head coach Urban Meyer and GM Trent Baalke remain in lockstep, stating they want “to build a room with [James Robinson] being an integral part of it.” They also mentioned adding competitiveness would be good for the room as well. Although they did sign Carlos Hyde, rumors suggest they might want to sign another RB, making Conner a legitimate option.

No matter how extraordinary Trevor Lawrence may be, having a running game to rely on is pivotal in the maturation process. The duo of Robinson and Conner would be a fantastic pairing and would not break the bank of a team in the middle of a rebuild.

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Be sure to follow us on Twitter (@PFN365) to stay up to date with all things around the NFL. Also, continue to visit Pro Football Network for NFL news and in-depth analysis concerning the 2021 season and beyond.

Tommy Garrett is a writer for Pro Football Network covering the NFL and fantasy football. You can read more of his work here and follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.

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