Brad Menendez | Dec 15, 2018 | 0
James Conner: Ruse or Revelation
I want to start off by congratulating all the James Conner owners out there. This guy has been a revelation this season. If you have him, you’re more than likely in playoff contention because he was a late speculative pick in redraft and dirt cheap in dynasty. The whole situation is unprecedented, and those who have capitalized on it have done so in a big way.
The Le’Veon Bell Fallout
If you’re a Le’Veon Bell owner and failed to acquire Conner, you’re probably singing the blues right about now. He’s done the unthinkable and sat out the first ten weeks of the season and it’s starting to look like he won’t be reporting at all in 2018. We’ve now learned that the collective-bargaining agreement allows a player who’s been franchise tagged to sit out the entire season and still count it as one of three years accrued. This is significant because the Steelers will need to tag him for a third and final time if they want to maintain control of Bell next season. That would cost them a hefty $25 million and all but guarantees Le’Veon remains estranged from the team and gets his wish of becoming a free agent at some point this offseason.
While devastating for Le’Veon Bell owners, the news is fantastic for owners of James Conner. The second-year running back out of Pitt has been other-worldly in a featured role, exceeding expectations week after week. He’s on pace for 1,371 yards with 18 touchdowns on the ground and 688 yards with two touchdowns receiving. If he can maintain that level of production he’ll get to 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns, which is obviously a monster season. Le’Veon Bell has only reached 2,000 yards once in 2014 and his best season for total touchdowns is 11, which he did in both 2014 and 2017. Scoring is up in 2018 so it may not be totally fair to make the comparison but in a vacuum, James Conner has been every bit as good as Le’Veon Bell from a fantasy football perspective and you could argue he’s been even better.
Conner’s Dynasty Value
As we all know, the Pittsburgh Steelers running back perennially has fantastic value. Since Todd Haley took over as the offensive coordinator in 2012, the Steelers have largely gone with one running back dominating the backfield touches. They didn’t have the personnel to do it in Haley’s first season with the team, but they got their guy in the 2013 NFL Draft in Le’Veon Bell. Bell finished as the RB15 his rookie season but played in only 13 games. Since that 2013 season, the Steelers have produced a top-5 running back every year. Bell finished as the RB1 in 2014, DeAngelo Williams the RB5 in 2015, Bell the RB3 in 2016, and Bell the RB2 in 2017. That’s an incredible track record for any team.
Todd Haley’s contract was not renewed in 2018 but it would appear that new offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner shares Haley’s philosophy on running back usage. Bell was a no-show for Week 1 and it hasn’t mattered. The Steelers run game picked up right where it left off with James Conner at the helm. He’s received almost 75% of the carries in 2018, which is roughly what Bell got in his healthy seasons with the team. It should be no surprise that the tremendous workload they’ve given him has resulted in elite fantasy numbers. James Conner is currently the RB3 in PPR leagues with 208.5 fantasy points (also the RB3 on a per game basis at 26.1 FP/G). So the Steelers have basically gotten Le’Veon Bell production, will save nearly $15 million as a result of his holdout and have identified their running back of the future in the process. The rich keep getting richer.
Circumstances can obviously change throughout the course of a season. Bell could shock the world and actually show up. Conner could suffer an injury or slow down as the season wears on, prompting the team to consider signing or drafting another back in the offseason. Time will tell, but at this moment in time, James Conner’s value is sky high and I have no reason to believe that’s going to change any time soon. It seems highly unlikely that Pittsburgh would entertain the idea of paying big money for a free agent like Tevin Coleman or T.J. Yeldon because they already have Conner on a rookie deal. It’s possible they take another running back in the upcoming draft but my gut feeling is it would be a late round guy without a realistic chance of usurping him. In my opinion, James Conner is going to be in the conversation as a top-5 running back entering the 2019 season. If you held onto him throughout all the Le’Veon Bell speculation, well done. You’ve landed a 23-year-old franchise running back for one of the best offenses in the NFL.