Le’Veon Bell’s Decision to Sit Out Season Leaves James Conner with Opportunity for Stardom

By Henry Erlandson

You called it. Wait, maybe you didn’t. At this point in the Le’Veon Bell saga, few knew for certain what would happen with the star running back and the rest of the Steelers organization. As of Saturday, it’s all but locked in that the two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro-Bowl back will not report for the Steelers this year. While it’s wonderful news for fantasy owners who have James Conner on their squad, the Steelers are left with only a few options to deal with the situation.

The most likely case will see the Steelers rescind the franchise tag that Bell received before the start of the 2018 season so that there is at least a small chance the team could receive compensatory picks from the league. The other option is for Pittsburgh to slap a transition tag on Bell so it can match any offers that the former Michigan State star might get over the offseason, but this is far from a realistic move. That’s because of one, simple reason: James Conner.

James Conner 1

Conner (right) carries the ball against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, Oct. 28.

Conner, the second-year back out of the University of Pittsburgh, has been what can only be described as excellent this year during Bell’s absence. He has rumbled his way to 11 total touchdowns and 771 yards rushing, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. The 23-year-old has impressed the team, fans, and league week in and week out, and is significantly cheaper to keep around compared to Bell, as Conner is on the second year of his four-year rookie deal, which is set to expire in 2020. Conner may well demand the type of money that some of the other great NFL backs are getting, i.e. Todd Gurley and David Johnson, but that is not an immediate concern for General Manager Kevin Colbert and the rest of the Steelers front office.

Despite ending up in concussion protocol last week in a victory over the Carolina Panthers, Conner now has ample opportunities to prove that he is the face of the Steelers backfield for the future, a backfield that belonged to Bell the previous four seasons. And there’s no reason to expect Conner won’t be able to fill the incredibly large shoes Bell is leaving behind, especially with the adversity that the Erie, Pennsylvania native has encountered.

After a sophomore season in which he rushed for 1,765 yards and a whopping 26 touchdowns on the path to being named the ACC Player of the Year, Conner tore his MCL during the season opener of his junior year and was later diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma during his recovery from the devastating knee injury. “When I heard those words–`You have cancer’–I admit I was scared,” Conner said in a 2015 article from the university’s website. “But after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that fear is a choice. I choose to not fear cancer. I choose to fight it and I will win.” Unsurprisingly, Conner did just that. He was cancer-free by the time the off-season came around and went on to dominate once again for the Panthers during his last collegiate season.

James Conner stiff arm

Conner (right) stiff arms a defender during a play against the Duke Blue Devils.

Fast-forward almost three years, and Conner is now second in the NFL in rushing yards behind the Rams’ Todd Gurley and fourth in total touchdowns. When comparing Conner and Bell’s first 9 games as starters for the Steelers, it really isn’t even close. While Bell helped the Steelers reach a 5-4 stretch in 2013 as the starter when he rushed 160 times for 528 yards and caught 33 receptions for 319 yards, he only added 5 total touchdowns to those numbers. That isn’t even half of Conner’s total of 11. So far this year through 9 games, Conner has rushed 164 times for 771 yards and snagged 39 receptions for 386 yards, squashing any concerns that the emerging star may have raised in the passing game after proving to be not much of a threat through the air in college.

None of these stats should downplay the supreme talent and production we have seen from Bell since his entrance into the league, but Mike Tomlin and the Steelers should be more concerned about cracking into the AFC Championship game now that they sit atop the AFC North at 6-2-1. They will likely have to deal with the electric Kansas City Chiefs offense and/or the Tom Brady-led powerhouse in New England.

Bell’s antics, as some would call them, aren’t remedying the confusion either. He has been seen playing pickup basketball during his hiatus in Florida, releasing rap videos, and tweeting upside down about his current contract dilemma. It’s safe to say that while Bell has been enjoying his time off, there are concerns about his commitment to the franchise and its success. Fellow offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, and David DeCastro expressed disappointment in Bell’s failure to report to the team earlier in the season.

From Bell’s perspective, it is understandable to ask for a long-term contract with guaranteed money after being franchise-tagged two years in a row. Running backs in the NFL, especially superstars like Bell, are a hot commodity in the league. In addition, they play (if healthy) 16 regular season games at arguably the most physically-taxing position in the sport. Just this week, it was reported that newly-acquired Saints wide receiver Dez Bryant suffered a season-ending, and possibly career-ending, injury after tearing his Achilles. That is exactly the kind of nightmare scenario a player like Bell is trying to avoid.

However, it doesn’t have to be Pittsburgh’s duty to fulfill Bell’s request, who is soon to be an unrestricted free agent. The Steelers are sitting pretty with their shiny new running back in James Conner and there is an abundance of teams in the league that could use an explosive back like Bell, so the demand won’t be scant in that respect. Pittsburgh fans should just hope that it isn’t a team that they’ll have to face on a consistent basis.

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