In his first full season as a starter in 2018, Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner far exceeded expectations and made it easy for his team to move on from Le'Veon Bell. While Conner was not expected to perform to the capability of Bell last season, he went above and beyond and his teammates loved every minute of it.
Conner's road to the NFL was not an easy one. He got his chance to show off his unquestioned skill set only after overcoming his battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma. The former University of Pittsburgh Panther was destined to make an impact in the pros. Landing with the Steelers made his journey that much better.
James Conner was fantastic in 2018, running for 973 yards and 12 touchdown on 215 carries while adding 55 receptions and one receiving touchdown. The Steelers' offensive schemes make it possible for Conner to get plenty of touches and punish opposing defenses. Unfortunately, Conner's 2018 season ended the same way his season did in 2017: He sustained injuries that cost him numerous weeks. Across 12 games, Conner was a force to be reckoned with. He ran his way to his first Pro Bowl appearance.
The Steelers missed the postseason for the first time in several years. Had Conner been there at the end of the 16-game slate, it's worth wondering if they could have extended their season in 2018.
As 2019 draws near, the Steelers can look forward to having Conner back at full health. They can also relish having internal dramas well behind them after parting with Bell and Antonio Brown. Conner could very well be a top-five running back next season behind a top offensive line. Now that Brown is gone, the offense may turn to Conner more often from this point on. JuJu Smith-Schuster will undoubtedly get additional coverage compared to the past.
Conner's skill set provides an extensive amount of options for the Pittsburgh offense; more work in the passing game could be a strong possibility for the Steelers' workhorse back. Although the Steelers always remain legitimate contenders, the AFC North has seen plenty of talent join the division. Presumably defenses will be stronger. This means six games out of the year, Conner will be tested against the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, and Cincinnati Bengals.
Last season, Conner gave onlookers a preview of what to expect in the future. Conner runs with power, speed, intensity, and above all a chip on his shoulder after accomplishing so much, as well as overcoming what many are not fortunate enough to relate to. Conner has a powerful life story and a running style to match. This is why he is a fan favorite in Pittsburgh beyond the fact that he played college ball in the Steel City. Conner runs for those who have fought like him; for those who have doubted him, he is out to prove why he could go down as one of the great Steeler running backs.
A new season could be a chance for Conner to show off what he has learned since joining the league. The best is yet to come for the talented young running back.