Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

James Conner

Brook Ward/For the Observer-Reporter

The loss of running back James Conner probably assures the Steelers of taking one in the first round.

If you had any doubt the Steelers were going to take a running back early in the upcoming NFL Draft, what transpired last week should have put that to rest.

James Conner signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals that will pay him just $1.75 million. The Steelers didn’t make him an offer.

It’s not that they couldn’t have made him an offer. At the time Conner signed with the Cardinals, the Steelers were $12 million under the salary cap.

They chose not to try to keep their lead running back from the past three seasons.

Conner made the Pro Bowl in 2018 in his first season replacing Le’Veon Bell. He had 973 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground while also catching 55 passes for 497 yards in 13 games. At that point, many Steelers fans deluded themselves into thinking Conner was better than Bell.

That was never the case. But Conner looked like he might be able to pick up where Bell left off and consistently give the Steelers a running game.

Problem was, Conner couldn’t stay healthy.

In three seasons as the team’s lead running back, he missed 12 games and large portions of several others because of injuries.

One season with injury problems is understandable. Two seasons with your lead back missing three or more games is a trend. Three in a row is a real problem.

The best ability for any player is availability and Conner just couldn’t consistently provide that.

His recovery from cancer while at Pitt to defy the odds and return to the football field is a great human story. His ability to do that and fashion an NFL career afterward is amazing.

But he’s not a lead running back. He’s a solid No. 2.

So, the Steelers will go into this draft looking for that lead back. And to get one, they can’t do what they have done in recent years and grab another one in the middle rounds. That’s what has netted them Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland over the past four years.

If they want a true lead running back, they’ll have to take one in the first round this year or likely have to move up from their second-round pick at 55 to get him. This year’s draft is somewhat limited at the position, with Alabama’s Najee Harris, North Carolina’s Javonte Williams and Clemson’s Travis Etienne easily being the top three. There’s a large gap between them and the rest of the players at the position.

Some say it’s not good business to take a running back early in a draft. The argument is that running backs can be found later in the draft.

That’s fine – unless you don’t have a lead runner.

There’s also this: Of the 311 1,000-yard rushing seasons by a running back in the past 20 years, 207 have been put up by players taken in the first or second rounds. That’s 66.6 percent. Add in the third-round picks who have done it, and 80 percent of the 1,000-yard seasons in the past 20 years have been by players selected on the first two days of the draft.

There are certainly outliers, but when you don’t have a starting running back, you can’t afford to wait.

  • Can we please stop with the Julian Edelman Hall of Fame talk? He’s not a Hall of Famer, not even close.

Spare me his postseason numbers. Those are great. But at no time in his career was Edelman ever considered a top-10 player at his position, let alone a top-5.

  • The Steelers re-signing Vince Williams last week is why you should never have a knee-jerk reaction to offseason moves.

On the opening salvo of free agency last month, when the Steelers released Williams and it was announced Tyson Alualu was signing with the Jaguars along with the losses of Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton, there was a lot of panic among Steelers fans.

Now, a little over a month later, Alualu changed his mind and Williams is back. The Steelers expected to lose Dupree and Hilton. In fact, they planned for it.

You’ve got to trust the process.

  • The Cleveland Browns gave Jadeveon Clowney $8 million for one season with a chance to make up to $10 million in 2021.

Clowney has played all 16 games in his career just once. And in the past two seasons, he has played in 21 games, recording three sacks.

They also signed former Falcons first-round pick Takk McKinley earlier this year for $4 million with nearly all of that guaranteed. He had 4.5 sacks the past two seasons.

Williams has 5.5 sacks the past two seasons. As a part-time player. And an inside linebacker.

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for DKPittsburghSports.com and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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