What The Snell Is Going On: A Deeper Look at James Conner and The Steelers Backfield

What The Snell Is Going On: A Deeper Look at James Conner and The Steelers Backfield
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DON’T PANIC! James Conner won’t lose his job in 2019.


If you’re reading this, it means one of two things: You’re a James Conner owner on tilt, or you’re looking to buy James Conner in dynasty but aren’t sure if he’s safe. I have good news for both of those parties. James Conner will score even more fantasy points than he did in 2018, barring injury. Let me explain.

The Question

When news came out in late May that the Steelers were running two-back sets in OTA’s Twitter began to panic, as it always does in the non-point-scoring season when there is a void in fantasy news. When James Conner said in an interview that he “hasn’t earned anything” in regards to securing the top spot in Pittsburgh, Twitter exploded. Insert ‘everybody panic’ gif from Monsters Inc. People created narratives around the new Steelers running back coach having ties to Jaylen Samuels in college, or Benny Snell looking great in OTA’s. Don’t buy into those narratives. Look at the facts.

The Numbers

  • Since 2006 if the Steelers RB1 has remained healthy, they have never seen less than 71% of the total running back carries over the entire season. James Conner played in 13 of the 17 games last season and he still saw 71% of the total running back carries over the course of the season.
  • Through 13 games Conner was on pace for 264.5 rushing attempts, 1197 rushing yards, 14.5 rushing touchdowns, 67.6 receptions, 611 receiving yards, and 1 receiving touchdown. To put that in perspective, that would have put him at 339.9 points in PPR format. In Le’veon Bell’s best season (2014), he had 370.5 points in a PPR format. A difference of 1.91 points per game in the fantasy season.
  • Jaylen Samuels YPC was 2.94 if you take out his week against New England.
  • AB vacated 168 targets for the Steelers this season. Both Conner and Samuels can benefit from that.

The Snell Narrative

The only interesting blip I saw on the Steelers’ running back history under Tomlin was the 2009 transition from running back Willie Parker to running back Rashard Mendenhall. In the 2008 NFL draft the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted running back Rashard Mendenhall in the first round. He was healthy but had one rushing attempt in that 2008 season behind their 28 year-old-starter Willie Parker. Parker was 29 with 1 season left on his contract. He then injured his hamstring in the preseason, which allowed Mendenhall to step in and take over for the rest of the season.(You can read about it here and here). This is the narrative some people want to give to Conner and Snell.

However, Conner is headed into his 3rd season with the Steelers, his 2nd as the lead running back, is only 24 years old, and is on contract through the 2020 season. Snell was drafted in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL draft. So he has less draft capital than Mendenhall did, less pass catching ability than Samuels and Conner, and would have to sit a year like Mendenhall did. If this narrative shows anything, it’s that you should be selling high on Conner in 2020 if he isn’t resigned by the end of the season/offseason.

The Takeaway

Moral of the story: Don’t panic on Conner and do not sell him at his perceived low in dynasty! Book him for a great 2019 and draft Snell/Samuels as his late round handcuffs. Draft Conner with confidence. If anyone is selling him below the value he set last season then I would encourage you to buy.

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