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Buying James Conner as a First-Rounder

Last season, the biggest debate in fantasy football heading into drafts was whether or not running back Le'Veon Bell was worthy of the first overall pick, let alone a first-round draft pick. As we now know, he sat out the entire season, and his backup running back James Conner went on to be an elite fantasy product playing behind the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line.

Is he going to be able to repeat that performance after being the biggest steal in fantasy football last season with an ADP in the 11th round?

Heading into the pre-draft process for the fantasy season, he's viewed as a borderline first-round pick in most formats, and he's a top-10 running back across the board. Is that where you should be picking him this season though? The Steelers offense is going to be less dynamic without Antonio Brown, and he likely won't be surprising opposing defenses as he did last year.

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All in Favor

Conner is running behind one of the best offensive lines in football. Their guard duo of Ramon Foster and David DeCastro is one of the best in football, and tackle Alejandro Villanueva has been one of the top tackles in football over the last five years. In his first game as the starter last year, he put up 135 yards and two touchdowns. On the season, he averaged 4.53 yards per carry with 12 rushing touchdowns. When he was out, rookie running back Jaylen Samuels put up solid production as well, with 19 carries for 142 yards. You have to have the talent to run well, but the Steelers line makes it easier to be successful with their level of play.

Despite playing just 13 games, he finished sixth among running backs in PPR scoring last season. When he puts up points, it's in bunches. In addition to his running talent and playing behind the Steelers' offensive line, Conner adds a good amount of value with his pass-catching ability. He finished the season with 55 catches for 497 yards. His catch rate was 77.5 percent, so, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger needs a dump-off receiver out of the backfield, he has a great safety valve in Conner.

How many running backs are consistently getting that level of production on the ground and through the air? It's only the ones that are getting drafted in the first round. It's running backs like Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, and Saquon Barkley. If they're in that convo, why shouldn't Conner be there?


All Opposed

Conner hasn't played all 16 games in either NFL season, and he has a decent amount of mileage on his tires after being a workhorse back in college. If the team chooses to use him as a workhorse back again during the 2019-20 season, is he going to be able to hold up for a full 16-game slate? The ankle injury that he dealt with last year was a high ankle sprain which has a tendency to be somewhat of a recurring injury in a player's future.

The team could also go in the opposite direction of making him a workhorse, as they did with Bell. They could know that whatever running back they put behind the line is going to be successful, and they could choose to rotate the backs out to keep Conner fresh down the stretch. Committee backs aren't often going in the first round, and Conner could become victim to the committee.

Last year, Conner was the third weapon in the Steelers offense. This year, he'll be the second option behind number one wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Add in that Roethlisberger has shown a lot of vulnerability to allow turnovers in the last couple of years, and if defenses can shut down the pass, they'll force Conner to run more against defenses scheming to stop him. He could be a one-year wonder that gets shut down when defenses know he's coming. That could lead to him being drafted in the first but not finishing even close to that range.


The Verdict

Conner had just 270 touches last season, and he still finished as the sixth overall running back in PPR scoring. He had a nose for the end zone with 13 touchdowns in 13 games. Under head coach Mike Tomlin, the team has been largely reliant on just a single running back, whether that has been Bell, Conner, DeAngelo Williams or whoever else they have available. Barring an injury, it's unlikely they go away from that strategy.

At the back end of the first round, Conner may be worth taking if you're set on getting a running back early. If you are OK with waiting, he makes more sense in the second round and could be available anyway within the first 20 picks.

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