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Rookie contract hero: James Conner is giving the Steelers good reason not to pay Le’Veon Bell

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Conner is Mr. Steal-ya-role (if you’re Bell).

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

First off, no challenge James Conner sees on an NFL field will ever match his most important triumph: beating the hell out of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Conner emerged as one of the NCAA’s best running backs as a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, then nearly had only his football career but his entire life derailed by a 2015 cancer diagnosis.

He worked through all that, finished his college career in the same calendar year he’d fought off malignant tumors, and ran for more than 1,000 yards with the Panthers. That work paved his way into the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, where he landed with the same team with whom he’d shared a stadium in college — the Pittsburgh Steelers.

So this season when he was called on to be Le’Veon Bell’s replacement as the two-time All-Pro staged a contract holdout, Conner was up to the challenge. His return to the field has made his cancer diagnosis a footnote. He’s changed his own narrative from “the player who returned” to “top-five running back.”

But not even Pittsburgh could have expected him to not just take over Bell’s spot in the lineup, but provide a solid analogue to the star who served as his mentor in 2017. And with a little more polish, he might be able to make the Steelers forget about Bell’s imminent departure.

James Conner has put together better numbers than 2017 Le’Veon Bell (but it’s only been seven games)

Let’s get the statistical comparison out of the way early. Here’s how Bell’s latest body of work — his 2017 All-Pro campaign — stacks up against the man tabbed to replace him as he campaigns for a long-term contract.

Le’Veon Bell’s 1st 7 games of 2017 vs. James Conner’s 2018

Player Year Rush Yds TD Yards per rush Tgt Rec Yds Yards per reception TD
Player Year Rush Yds TD Yards per rush Tgt Rec Yds Yards per reception TD
Le'Veon Bell 2017 169 684 4 4.1 42 33 214 6.5 0
James Conner 2018 127 599 9 4.7 41 31 323 10.4 0

Those numbers favor the second-year back in a big way. Bell gained more yards, but also got 42 more carries. Conner was significantly more efficient with the ball and more than doubled the veteran’s touchdown output through seven games. Bell caught more passes (33 vs. 31). Conner did more with them (10.4 yards per catch vs. 6.5). Bell’s catch rate is slightly higher (78.6 to 75.6 percent), but some of that discrepancy is due to the fact Conner’s been targeted more often downfield.

And while part of Conner’s advantage can be chalked up to Bell’s slow start after sitting out the preseason due to a 2017 contract dispute, erasing Weeks 1 and 2 from his stats and inserting games 8 and 9 instead actually make his numbers worse — he ran for just 3.1 yards per carry and had seven catches for 37 yards in wins over the Lions and Colts.

One trait those numbers don’t touch on is Bell’s ability to provide above-average blocking from the backfield. Bell has found a way to stifle blitzing linebackers throughout his career, creating a formidable sixth or seventh blocker. More importantly, he’s in tune with Ben Roethlisberger’s slow-motion scrambles, which gives him a sixth sense when it comes to clearing room for his QB to step into an opening and deliver a pass downfield.

Conner isn’t there yet, though his blocking has improved this fall. When it comes to passing downs, Bell is the guy the Steelers want working as a rover inside the pocket to fend off the blitz.

Despite that, Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, who somehow didn’t host a forgettable game show in the late 1980s, thinks Pittsburgh is better when Bell’s on the sideline.

Bell’s impact can’t be explained in seven games. He’s averaged 2,063 yards from scrimmage for every 16 games he’s played. He’s caught more than 81 percent of the passes thrown his way the past three seasons despite often being the focus off opposing defenses. He was voted the league’s fifth-best player at the end of the 2017 season.

Conner’s made history too:

He’ll get the chance to add more accolades, either as Bell continues his holdout or in 2019 and beyond. And that’ll give him the chance he can truly be the multi-faceted back on which the Steelers have relied since 2013.

Both Bell and Conner have excelled as pass-catching backs

One of Bell’s sticking points in contract talks has been that he brings the value of an elite running back and a No. 2 wide receiver. While the latter part isn’t precisely true, one of his most important duties in Pittsburgh was to provide support near the line of scrimmage and on wheel routes for those moments when Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, or any of the team’s above-average receivers were covered. In his past two seasons, he’s averaged more than 5.9 catches per game — more than players like Amari Cooper, A.J. Green, or Mike Evans.

Conner isn’t at those heights yet, but he’s unlocked a new level of receiving talent no one really knew he had. He had zero catches on a sole target as a rookie. He had 30 receptions in college — 0.77 per game — though the bulk of those (21) came during his final season as a Panther. But when he was asked to fill Bell’s role, he’s been a worthy replacement. And he’s proven, and please excuse the all caps here, that HE CAN DO THINGS LIKE THIS WHHHHHOOOOOOAAAA.

That seems like evidence he’s got strong hands. The precursor to that catch was Roethlisberger dealing with a collapsed pocket, rolling to his left like the oblong, bottom-heavy marble he is, and searching frantically for someone to dump the ball off to before getting mashed behind the line of scrimmage. Conner’s proven he can be that guy, which adds so much value to an already-potent running attack.

Roethlisberger also knows he can turn to his young tailback for steady hands and an explosive burst after the catch. Here he is against the Falcons, ignoring two open tight ends slightly further downfield in favor of Conner — who rewards him against a decimated Atlanta secondary with a major gain.

Conner hasn’t drawn the kind of defensive coverage Bell would have in similar snaps, so he’s still got plenty to prove. The veteran was a known commodity who had to be spied at all times. Conner, at least through seven games, has been far easier for opposing linebackers and safeties to overlook, especially with Brown and Smith-Schuster on the field. Even so, it’s an encouraging start from a player who has made the most of his opportunities early in 2018.

Conner’s big advantage over his veteran counterpart is the 233-pound frame that’s given him the power to churn through defenders in the red zone. In seven games, he’s already matched Bell’s career high in a season, set in 2017. Six have come from four yards or fewer.

But he’s more than just a short-yardage pile pusher. When we broke down Saquon Barkley’s big rookie year, we saw the only other top-five running back to get dropped for three yards or fewer as much as the Giants’ tailback was Conner. But in the two weeks since, he was stuffed (runs of three yards or fewer) 22 times on 43 carries — a 51.1 percent figure that measures up favorably with stars like Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Kareem Hunt.

With those last two games in the books, his season stuff rate has dropped from 62.1 percent to 58.2. His big-play rate (10+ yards) rose from 12.6 percent to 15. Those are the numbers of a Pro Bowl tailback. The question is whether or not he can keep this pace.

Can we expect this to last from Conner?

Conner’s biggest knock has been a lack of consistency. His big numbers hinge on a stretch that saw him become the first player in franchise history to run for more than 100 yards and rush for two touchdowns or more in three straight games. Before that, he’d run for 97 yards on 32 carries in a 1-2 stretch that dragged the Steelers under .500 a quarter of the way into the season.

So which player is going to emerge as Pittsburgh makes a run at its fourth AFC North title in five years?

History says a heavy workload won’t be a problem. Conner was the engine for Pitt Football as a sophomore, the main option for a team that ran the ball, on average, 11 more times per game than its opponents despite a 6-7 record. He earned 298 carries in 13 games that year — only 23 fewer than Bell did when he led the league last season. In the time since, he’s beaten cancer, returned to the field, and generally been tough as nails in every aspect of being a human.

The bigger concern is whether his output in the passing game is sustainable. Going from 1.6 catches per game in his most-used season in college to 4.4 in the NFL is a significant jump. The way the Steelers are built — the way Bell helped make them, in fact — shows he’ll continue to have a big role as a receiver out of the backfield. A 75.6 percent catch rate, which is higher than Todd Gurley’s but lower than Alvin Kamara’s, suggests he can continue to add roughly 40 yards of value to the passing game each Sunday.

What’s James Conner gonna cost the Steelers in 2020?

Conner probably isn’t going to get the $17 million per year Bell made a sticking point, though some combination of All-Pro behavior and extreme managerial pettiness could make that the perfect storm of hot takes in 2020. That’s the final year of Conner’s four-year rookie contract, and signing him before that expires will be important, especially given the way the Bell holdout has turned out.

It also won’t be cheap. The second-year back has emerged as a player who adds extreme value in the passing game, and those guys earn massive paychecks.

How big? Conner isn’t Gurley, but given an extra two years of inflation, he could wind up eclipsing the market-setting contract extension he signed this offseason. Gurley re-upped with the Rams for four years and $57.5 million, slightly more per year than the Steelers were offering Bell but with way, way more in guarantees. That’s going to force the franchise into a decision before the ‘20 season gets underway, and since the club has been so staid and tied to tradition in its past, oh, eight decades of operation, we have a good idea of how it will go.

Pittsburgh is willing to offer its homegrown stars big-money contracts at the top of the market for their positions. The Steelers did it with Antonio Brown (twice), Cameron Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey, and more. They would have done it with Bell, too, but he ran afoul of the other Steeler trait that haunts their contracts — low guarantees.

Pittsburgh doesn’t pay big up front; Brown’s $68 million deal only has $19 million in guaranteed money. Heyward’s 2015 deal made him the league’s third-highest-paid defensive end but ranked him just 21st at the time when it came to guarantees. So any contract Conner gets, even if it’s massive in total value, will look a lot less impressive when it comes to the money the tailback will walk away with, no matter what.

With that in mind, they could bring Conner — assuming he remains a top-tier back — a modified version of that five-year, $70 million pact they tried to push on Bell. The exact number will depend on what guys like Elliott and classmates Hunt and Kamara sign for, but it’s not unreasonable to think the Steelers could land on five years and $75 million for Conner. The downside for the budding tailback would be that it would also likely include something around 20-25 percent of that money in guarantees — in this case, let’s call it $19 million.

That’s big money, and Conner would get the chance to finish out his contract and earn any penny of it. But it doesn’t protect him in case of injury, and it’s a far cry from the $45 million in guarantees Gurley got. So the real question in 2020, assuming Conner keeps up this pace, could be whether or not Pittsburgh has learned anything from its experience with Bell.

Other rookie contract studs who upped their value in Week 8:

Carson Wentz, QB, Eagles (286 yards, 3 TDs in win over Jaguars)

Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans (5 passing TDs in win over Dolphins)

Chris Carson, RB, Seahawks (105 rush yards in win over Lions)

Marlon Mack, RB, Colts (132 rush yards, 2 TDs in win over Raiders)

Jordan Hicks, LB, Eagles (13 tackles, 1.5 sacks in win over Jaguars)

Jordan Evans, LB, Bengals (11 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT in win over Buccaneers)

Kenny Clark, DT, Packers (2 sacks in loss to Rams)


Previously in rookie contract heroes:

Week 1: Michael Thomas
Week 2: Matt Breida
Week 3: Myles Garrett
Week 4: Patrick Mahomes II, Tyreek Hill, and Kareem Hunt
Week 5: T.J. Watt
Week 6: Saquon Barkley
Week 7: Darius Leonard