Rookie Spotlight: James Conner, University of Pittsburgh
Height: 6’ 1 1/2”
Weight: 233 lbs
Hands: 9 7/8”
Arm: 31 1/4”
40 yard dash: 4.65 (official)
NFL Comparison: Alfred Morris
-downhill battering ram
-good burst and first move
-history of major injuries
-little breakaway speed
Scouting Notes: Conner has rolled with the punches over the course of his college career at Pitt. His coming out party was his sophomore year in 2014 when he ran for 1,765 yards and 26 TDs, but things turned for the worse in 2015. He tore his MCL early in the season, and not long after Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma. Interestingly enough, the MCL issue might have given doctors a head start on finding the cancer. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – which is more than wrong most of the time, but in Conner’s case this platitude may hold water. He was declared cancer-free in 2016 and regained the starter spot to start the season – he finished with 1, 092 yards and 16 TDs as an All-American.
Bigger than your average back, Conner possesses surprising pop out of the backfield. He bursts through his holes with confidence, foregoing any dancing around at the line of scrimmage for unadulterated downhill power. He uses that power to punish tacklers, running over or stiff arming the competition into submission until one or several defenders use maximum effort to bring him down. He’s got great balance for a big guy too, keeping a low center of gravity and staying on his feet through contact – always falling forward to end the play. It’s a good thing that Conner can absorb contact and keep moving because he’s not going to break off the big play very often. He doesn’t have great breakaway speed, and he’s not terribly athletic in a speed-sense so he’s not going to make headway by making moves in the open field. He doesn’t run around things, he runs through them.
Conner wasn’t really asked to catch the ball much until his 2016, and he did a capable job in that department. Pass catching back doesn’t fit his profile though – he’s going to be a first-two-down guy in the NFL. As a blocker, Conner stays true to form, stymieing defenders to the best of his ability – which is often more than enough. A team captain known for his ability to bounce back from adversity, Conner has a head for the game – hopefully his body can follow.
Fantasy Outlook: If not for his unfortunate history of ill health, Conner would be a sure top 2-3 round bet. It’s really the only thing standing in the way of a high pick besides his lack of speed which does certainly stand out on his senior tape. There are plenty of worthy running backs in the draft this year that have a much cleaner bill of health, though, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes as late as the 4th or 5th round.
Also, Conner isn’t a do-everything back. He’s a battering-ram and a TD machine who will be best implemented in the red-zone, so on one hand he’s likely to be TD dependent which you don’t want to rely on in fantasy, and on the other hand he’ll be depended on for TDs so he could provide value even if he’s not seeing a ton of playing time early in his career. Who knows, if he cultivates his receiving game, Conner could prove a lot more valuable than I’m giving him credit for. As is, he’s a third-to-fourth-round dynasty pick in traditional 4-round rookie drafts with room to improve his stock if the NFL landing spot is just right.
Quotable from the Combine:
RE: How much lighter did he come in for the Combine and did he do it to help his 40 time at the combine?
230-235 is what I enjoy playing at, so I think the rookie career from here on out, that’s the weight I’ll pay at. I think it would help for the 40, but I didn’t lose weight (for the 40). I just wanted to get to a comfortable playing weight.
RE: His previous weight?
RE: What does he hope to accomplish at the combine?
First to show that I’m healthy; that’s the number one thing. I got another clean scan, so I thank the Lord for that. I really just want to interview great, show teams my ability to compete on the field and run as fast as I can, and just compete out there.
RE: What kept him going through his cancer battle.
This right here, trying to fulfill my ultimate goal of being in the NFL, one step closer at the scouting combine, so I really just had that goal to be an NFL player, so during treatments, this was on my mind, getting closer to my dream.
RE: When he got his last clean scan.
RE: How did playing in the ACC prepare him for the NFL?
I think the ACC is a top of the line conference. I think every game, there are no slouches; you have to bring it. Obviously, it’s the best of the best, so playing in the ACC I definitely feel is going to (enable me to) translate my play to the NFL.
RE: How long did it take for him to be cleared from his concussion in the bowl game?
It was about 2 days. That was my first-ever diagnosed concussion, so it didn’t’ take long for me to be fine.
RE: what has his medical process been like?
I came with a scan, a clean scan and the teams doctors make copies. So I really haven’t had much questions about the cancer besides the formal interviews when they ask me to explain a little bit more. But the medical process here has been evaluation—shoulders, knees, getting tugged on and stuff like that. Medical has been fine for me. A lot of doctors say I’m healthy.
RE: Is he having to explain his cancer treatments.
Yeah because some of the doctors don’t know, like when we do the head and neck test and they ask me about the scar on my neck, and I just explain it to them. I tell them that I had Hodgkins lymphoma and that I’m clean. So simple questions like that.
RE: His weight at Pitt?
I was about 245 this past season.
RE: How he kept himself involved in football while undergoing his treatments.
We were getting a new offensive coordinator so I still wanted to be around studying that new playbook. But I really just –nobody wants to go through that process alone, so that’s what I was working on my foundation for, to help kids with cancer and stuff. So just me being around my teammates has helped me lift my spirits and take my mind off all the negative, so being around those guys really made it a smooth process.
RE: Did he ever talk to Le’Veon Bell who also lost weight before the combine like Conner had to get feedback on how it worked out.
I haven’t talked to him specifically. I know he did it because I know the Steelers running backs coach likes you to be as light as possible, but as strong as possible. So we’ll see what my future running backs coach wants—whatever he wants me to do I’ll do.
RE: Pitt’s great NFL alumni network (Dan Marino, Tony Dorsett, Larry Fitzgerald) – has anyone reached out and if so, best piece of advice he got.
Not through this process. They know it’s a busy time for me. I barely have any time to talk to my family throughout this time. I am blessed to have close relationship with Fitzgerald and Marino—all those guys reached out during chemo and constantly reached out after during games, so I feel blessed to have a great relationship. It’s just the simple stuff: Do you, be yourself, because there’s no faking that.
RE: Did he get any advice while training pout in California with Ben Roethlisberger?
Same thing: Just be yourself, have fun with it , enjoy the process. He knows I’ve overcome a lot; I know that too. Me and Ben, cool both repped by Ryan Tollner, phenomenal guy Just blessed to have that relationship with Ben.
RE: Does he feel he has an advantage over everyone else given what he’s overcome?
For sure. That’s what I like to explain to the coaches. I ask the coaches, “What do you guys want in a RB?” They want a tough guy. My mental toughness and my physical toughness, I feel, is second to none. I just been through so much and I think I’m more determined than any running back in this class and just willing to make sacrifices and do whatever it takes.