Last year, a lot of savvy fantasy football players spent a late-round pick on Pittsburgh Steelers backup running back James Conner. With Le'Veon Bell's status in doubt, due to a preseason holdout, Conner made sense as a flier due to his standalone value if Bell were to miss any time.
Flash forward to the end of the season, and Bell ended up playing zero games for the Steelers. Conner, meanwhile, finished 2018 with 1,470 scrimmage yards and 13 total touchdowns. He was the RB7 in standard leagues last season and the RB6 in PPR formats.
Now, with Bell a member of the New York Jets, there is no question who the Steelers backfield belongs to this upcoming season. Conner is no longer a late-round flier, but rather the RB7 according to average draft position (ADP) and the 9th pick overall.
The question now is, can Conner repeat his success from last season? And furthermore, how much competition will he have this time around with Bell completely out of the picture?
To address the first question, Conner was very impressive last season, averaging 4.5 yards per carry and nine yards per reception. He was Pittsburgh's unquestioned goal line back, and caught 55 balls on 71 targets in just 13 games.
On the other side of the coin, Conner's production dipped significantly in the second half of the season, as he went from averaging 88.3 rushing yards per game to 53.4 yards, while his receiving yardage per game dipped from 47.4 to 23.6. Conner also missed Weeks 14-16 with a leg injury, which brings into question his ability to withstand a full 16-game season.
As for his competition, second-year back Jaylen Samuels had a monster Week 16 filling in for Conner last season and has received some camp buzz this summer regarding his role in the offense. Even if Samuels carves out a bigger slice of the RB pie this year, it won't be enough to prevent Conner from getting a top 10 workload at the position when healthy.
At the end of the day, Conner is a pretty safe bet as a late first round pick. He has looked the part so far through two years in the NFL and plays behind one of the league's best offensive lines. His second-half swoon was a concern, and he likely doesn't have top five RB upside, but for those looking to play it safe at the end of the first round, Conner is probably your guy.
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