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Can James Conner Replicate Last Year’s Breakout? (2019 Fantasy Football)

by Zachary Hanshew | @ZaktheMonster | Featured Writer
Jul 22, 2019

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One of the most fascinating storylines of the 2018 NFL season was Le’Veon Bell‘s season-long holdout. Steelers’ backup James Conner played tremendously in his stead and is the new starting RB in town after Bell signed with the Jets this past offseason. Conner is the unquestioned number-one backfield option for Pittsburgh, and though many fantasy owners are rightfully bullish on him, some question the newcomer’s staying power in the ranks of the elite fantasy RBs. What does the 2019 season hold for James Conner in his first full season in the post-Bell era? 

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Conner was drafted in the third round out of Pittsburgh in 2017 and played a very minimal backup role to Bell as a rookie. Last season, he delivered a top-12 finish in his first season as the starter, but can he sustain that production? We’ve seen plenty of players pop off for huge seasons and come crashing back to earth the next year. Remember Knowshon Moreno and Peyton Hillis? Is James Conner a player who will suffer the same fate? That seems unlikely, for several reasons. First, Conner plays on a team that has historically utilized just one back — not a committee. Guys like Knowshon Moreno and future Broncos Montee Ball,  C.J. Anderson, and Devontae Booker always had the specter of an RBBC lurking. Conner can almost certainly bank on 18-20 touches per game. Next, Conner plays on a high-powered offense and one that’s been consistently high-scoring for a decade. Guys like Hillis and future Browns first-rounder Trent Richardson caught lightning in a bottle by scoring TDs at a higher-than-normal rate and racking up meaningless yards on bad teams.

Third, the Steelers boast an elite offensive line. Pittsburgh’s o-line ranks third in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus’ latest rankings. That’s great news for Conner, who should find plenty of holes when he gets the ball in the backfield. Pittsburgh is a perennial playoff team and an occasional Super Bowl contender. Conner’s guarantee of a featured role and excellent team dynamic set him up for sustained success. Fantasy owners needn’t worry that 2018 was a fluke.


Over the last decade, the Pittsburgh offense has produced some quality RBs who have been fantasy studs, even if only briefly. Rashard Mendenhall averaged 1,297 scrimmage yards and 10 total TDs on 287 touches from 2009-2011 wearing black and gold. When Mendenhall missed 10 games in 2012, the Steelers’ run game took a major hit, but Le’Veon Bell‘s arrival in 2013 got things back on track. Bell produced 3,474 scrimmage yards and 19 total TDs in his first two years in the league. DeAngelo Williams filled in for an injured Bell in 2015, racking up 1,274 scrimmage yards and a league-leading 11 rushing TDs that year. Bell was back at it in 2016-2017, when he totaled 3,830 scrimmage yards and 20 total TDs.

With the Bell holdout in 2018, Conner got his turn in a line of very successful Steelers’ backs. He delivered with an RB1 season in which he totaled a 215/973/12 rushing line and a 55/497/1 receiving line. His 270 touches ranked ninth in the NFL, but amazingly, he appeared in just 13 games. His 16-game pace for total touches was 327, which would have ranked third behind only Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley.

Conner’s involvement in the receiving game will likely be boosted this season with the departures of Antonio Brown and Jesse James. That frees up 207 targets to be distributed among the remaining receivers and Conner. His 55 receptions in 13 games last season translates to 68 receptions over the course of a full season.

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The allotment of backfield touches in Pittsburgh will be to Conner’s advantage, as the Steelers have historically employed a workhorse back. Here are the workloads of Pittsburgh’s number one and number two backs over the last six years:

2018 James Conner


Jaylen Samuels


2017 Le’Veon Bell


James Conner


2016 Le’Veon Bell


DeAngelo Williams


2015 DeAngelo Williams


Fitzgerald Toussaint


2014 Le’Veon Bell


LeGarrette Blount


2013 Le’Veon Bell


Jonathan Dwyer/Felix Jones


As you can see, Pittsburgh leans heavily on one back and gives that back the majority of the backfield touches. In fact, the total touches of the featured backs in the Steelers’ offense over the last six years is 1,914, an average of 319 per season. The total touches of the next closest guys in their respective seasons? Just 433, an average of 72 per season. That’s an astounding 81% of RB touches going to the lead back with just 19% going to the next guy. Don’t expect that to change in 2019. Conner should be in line for 300+ touches if he can play every game.


Any notion of Conner sharing work with Jaylen Samuels or rookie Benny Snell is completely overblown. Conner is locked into a workhorse role with Pittsburgh in 2019 — a role he and fantasy owners alike will relish. A 300-touch season seems highly likely, and Conner will excel once again playing in a high-powered offense behind a good offensive line. He’s a clear RB1 this season with a ton of upside in PPR formats.

2019 Projections: 245 carries, 1,250 rush yards, 55 receptions, 470 receiving yards, 14 total TDs, RB7

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Zachary Hanshew is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from Zachary, check out his archive and follow him @zakthemonster.

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