Le'Veon Bell vs. James Conner - Part 2
As we’ve broken down what there is to expect with Le’Veon Bell with his first season on the New York Jets, we’ll now tackle another popular topic, his replacement in Pittsburgh.
A year ago, James Conner took over the starting runningback position due to Bell’s refusal to play amidst a contract dispute with the team. During his first season as a starter, Conner put up quality numbers. He played 13 games, ran the ball 215 times for 973 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. He did average 4.5 yards per carry. On the receiving end, he received 71 targets, 55 receptions, 497 yards, a touchdown and nine yards per reception.
Now these are impressive numbers and one would assume that Conner would be in line for a heavier workload in 2019. Before we get into anything, let’s figure out what numbers Conner could have put up last year if he were to not miss the three games at the end of the season.
Conner averaged 74.85 rushing yards a game, if he were to play all 16 games, he would have had 1,197.6 yards rushing. With scoring twelve touchdowns across 13 games, he would have scored 0.92 rushing touchdowns a game, which would equate to 14.72 touchdowns in 16 games. If we run the same type of calculations quickly for his receiving stats he would have recorded 67.7 receptions, 611.68 receiving yards and we’ll give him another receiving touchdown.
In a full point PPR league, Conner was on pace to score 350.63 points last year, which would have been good for RB5. He finished last season as RB6.
Just out on intrigue, let's run a 16 game scenario for Jaylen Samuels, who started three games during the season for the Steelers in Conner’s absence.
Across weeks 13, 14 and 15, where Samuels started, he had 42 carriers for 223 yards for zero touchdowns. On a 16 game schedule, Samuels would have 224 carries and 1,189.33 yards. We can’t predict rushing touchdowns based off averages since he did not record any, but with Conner rushing for just 8.27 yards more on average, Samuels would get his chances.
On the receiving side of the ball, Samuels averaged four receptions per game. During 16 games he would be on pace for 64 receptions for 560 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Essentially, Samuels would have put up nearly identical numbers to Conner. Does this suggest that anyone we plug into the Steelers backfield would have significant fantasy value? Due to our calculations, we would say yes.
Now, due to this, how do the Steelers, who historically rely on one runningback and do not use a backfield committee, plan to use their backfield in 2019.
Speculation had surfaced at this early stage of the off-season process that the backfield was up for grabs for the Steelers for any of Conner, Samuels or rookie Benny Snell.
Many are high on Benny Snell, who was taken with the twentieth pick of the fourth round. However, Snell is unlike Bell, Samules or Conner. Snell is your brute force back. The run-up-the-middle type of guy. He had limited passing chances due to his play style in college.
Since 2013 (excluding 2015 when Bell played just six games) the Steelers’ RB1 finished with an average ranking of 7th among qualifying runningbacks when it comes to passing targets. Obviously, catching the ball out of the backfield is a huge part of Pittsburgh’s game plan.
As of now, I see this as Conner’s backfield. I know traditionally the Steelers’ don’t go with a multiple runningback approach but I think there’s plans for Snell to get goalline and short yardage work as well as Samuels taking a few snaps away. Right now, ESPN has Conner ranked as the RB8, but I think he finishes the season closer to RB10.
If Conner were to play all 16 games last year at the pace he was on, he was in line for 265 caries, 1,198 yards rushing yards, 15 rushing touchdowns, 68 receptions, 612 receiving yards and two rushing touchdowns. That stat line would give him 350.63 fantasy points.
Now, with my assumption that Snell will get some goal line work as well as in short yardage situations and Samuels getting some snaps, let's take his per 16 game stats I calculated and do some reductions.
Conner had the vast majority of goalline work last year. Let’s say Snell comes in and takes a generous third of those carriers. He also gets 1/10th of his carriers for short yardage situations. That would give Snell 31 carries, 120 yards and five touchdowns.
Now Samuels will take 1/5th of the running plays and let’s say a quarter of passing plays from Conner. That gives Samuels 53 carries, 240 rushing yards, 17 receptions, and 153 receiving yards. We’ll give Samuels 1 rushing and 1 receiving TD as well.
This leaves Conner with 181 carries, 838 yards, 9 rushing touchdowns, 51 receptions, 459 receiving yards and 1 receiving touchdown. That puts Conner at 240.7 fantasy points, good enough for RB10 last season, and that’s about where I rank him.
Of course the shares I took from Conner for Snells and Samuels are hypothetical and could very well not happen at all, but I think we’re going to see this Pittsburgh backfield share the workload a bit more than we’ve seen in years past.
With that being said, Le’Veon Bell will have the better season among the two, despite being in a worse situation. In my most recent article I broke down how I project Le’Veon Bell to do this upcoming season, and here is my projected stat line:
Bell - 320 carries, 1,248 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns, 77 receptions, 691 yards and 3 receiving touchdowns. Totaling 330.7 fantasy points.
Conner - 181 carries, 838 rushing yards, 9 rushing touchdowns, 51 receptions, 459 receiving yards and 1 receiving touchdown. Totaling 240.7 fantasy points.
Be cautious this year when taking a look at drafting Conner early.