Pittsburgh running back James Conner was one of the NFL’s breakout stars in 2018, but he regressed big time in an injury-plagued 2019 campaign. Here are Conner’s odds at Mybookie to lead the NFL in rushing yards in the 2020 regular season as well as his over/under yardage total.
Conner was one of the best running backs in ACC history at the University of Pittsburgh despite missing all but one game of the 2015 season after tearing his MCL in Week 1 and then diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma during the rehab process. However, he would eventually be declared cancer-free and returned with a bang in 2016. Conner finished second on Pitt’s all-time rushing yards chart (3,733), total touchdowns (56) and rushing touchdowns (52), trailing only Tony Dorsett in all three. Conner set ACC records for career rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns.
The hometown Steelers took him with the No. 105 pick in the 2017 draft. Conner barely played as a rookie but when star tailback Le’Veon Bell sat out the 2018 season in a contract dispute, Conner stepped up big time in being named to the Pro Bowl.
Despite being limited to 13 games due to injury, Conner finished the season with 973 rushing yards on 215 carries (4.5 avg.) with 12 rushing touchdowns and added 55 catches for 497 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown. His 55 catches were the fourth-most by a Steelers running back in a season and his 12 rushing touchdowns were the most by a Steeler in a single season since 2010.
Conner became the first player in NFL history with four games within a single season of 100+ rushing yards, 50+ receiving yards and a touchdown. He also joined Hall of Famer Franco Harris (1979) as the only players in Steelers history with at least two rushing touchdowns in five games of a single season. Conner rushed for at least 100 yards and two touchdowns in three consecutive games (games 5-7) in 2018, becoming the first player in Steelers history with such a streak and the first NFL player since 2009 (Chris Johnson).
Big things were expected from Conner last year with Bell off to the Jets, but Conner again had injury problems. Overall, Conner recorded 464 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns to go along with 34 receptions for 251 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns in 10 games. Conner’s yards-per-carry average dipped from 4.5 in 2018 to a pedestrian 4.0 last year, and he scored eight fewer rushing touchdowns while averaging nearly 30 fewer rushing yards per game.
This season could be Conner’s last in Pittsburgh with him entering a contract year and the team not inclined to extend it unless Conner can prove he can stay on the field. The Steelers also took running back Anthony McFarland Jr. in the fourth round of the draft out of Maryland. McFarland is a bite-sized 5-foot-8 but packs 208 pounds on his frame and ran a 4.47 40-yard dash.
Conner probably will have to split some carries this year with second-year Benny Snell to get some between-the-tackles work and McFarland to get a few touches. Even Kerrith Whyte flashed some big-play ability over the second half of last season.
Then again, Coach Mike Tomlin recently said Conner is “a featured guy and proven runner when healthy.”
“I’m a featured-runner type guy by mentality,” Tomlin said when asked about his plans at running back this upcoming season. “No question in today’s game, a featured runner needs to be supplemented and supplemented by guys who are capable of doing similar things in case he misses time…Usually when it’s going well, it’s because you have a lead dog out front, and that guy is the featured runner. James is a featured guy and proven runner when healthy. We’re excited about him getting back to health and displaying that in 2020.”
Conner posted some pictures on social media recently and he’s absolutely ripped. Conner said that he saw the stay-at-home coronavirus order as a perfect opportunity to “get back to the basics.” Staying away from the bars and utilizing bodyweight exercises and improved nutrition, he was reshaped his body.
“I just wanted to strict up that diet, you know,” he said. “I’ve been hitting the gym like twice a day, throughout the week. That’s just what it came to. I was in the weight room getting it in one day, took that shirt off and started flexing on them.”
Pittsburgh is a 3.5-point Week 1 favorite at the New York Giants.