It was late in the third round of the 2017 draft. The Steelers were about to draft at 41 with their second pick in the round. The team had already taken edge rusher and corner back. They even threw in a wild card and drafted a wide receiver in the second round. Most figured the Steelers would go safety next, or back to edge rusher to bolster that position. Kevin Colbert shocked everybody though and drafted James Conner out of Pitt. Running back? This early?? What were the Steelers thinking here?? They already have the best back in the NFL. There is plenty of depth there too, including recent free agent signing Knile Davis. Why draft a running back this high with so many other needs to fill?
Well maybe Colbert and the Steelers had a plan all along. They clearly valued James Conner quite a bit. He wasn't even the consensus best back still on the board. Experts believed he would have been available in the fourth or possibly even the fifth round. Kevin Colbert and company saw something in him that others didn't. Was James Conner pegged to be Le'veon Bell's replacement sooner rather than later? The Steelers know better than anyone how likely a long-term deal with Bell would be. As we have since learned, it appears to be not very likely at all. So do the Steelers see Conner as a Pro-Bowl caliber back, good enough to lessen the sting of losing such a talented player like Bell?
By now everyone knows the James Conner story, and how his illness cost him his junior season. It's the seasons before and after that really stand out for the former Pitt star. His sophomore season was outstanding. After rushing for over 1,600 yards and accumulating 26 touchdowns, Conner was well on his way to becoming a star at Pittsburgh. Had he not gotten ill following that season, Conner was on his way to becoming a sure-fire first round pick whenever he chose to enter the NFL. His remarkable comeback finished with a senior season that included a thousand yards of rushing and 16 touchdowns. While it was a surprise to most that Pittsburgh went running back in the third round, they may very well have gotten a steal that late in the draft. More importantly, they got the player that was identified to replace Le'veon Bell.
Let's be clear that in no way is James Conner better, or even as good as Le'veon Bell. Bell is a once in a generation type player. What the Steelers see in him is a big, tough back who can run inside the tackles. A perfect compliment to the high flying passing game Pittsburgh possesses. And let's not forget the character upgrade as well. The Steelers sent a very clear message they were changing philosophies and putting high character players at the top of their requirements for potential draftees.
So now we wait to see what the future holds. Pittsburgh made a substantial offer to Le'veon Bell that eventually got turned down. This probably didn't surprise the team at all. It appears Bell wants to make a stand, and blow away the market for running backs. While their probably are a handful of teams willing to pay that kind of contract should Bell ever reach free agency, the Steelers aren't one of them. It's not out of the realm of possibility that James Conner is the starting running back in 2018. Maybe that has been the plan all along.