Could James Conner legitimately replace Le’Veon Bell in 2019?

Pittsburgh Steelers

Le’Veon Bell is going into his final season with the Steelers, but could James Conner step in and replace him?

After a second straight offseason with no long-term deal, and the financial implications of using the franchise tag on him a third straight time in 2019, Le’Veon Bell is surely entering his final season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Any threat to sitting out games seems unfounded, but a second straight year of staying away through training camp is likely.

Bell’s market as an unrestricted free agent next offseason will be interesting. He is the most important player on the Steelers, above Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, due to how tough it would be to replace him now and for sure starting in 2019. As a dual threat workhorse, with a league-leading 321 carries last year along with 85 receptions, Bell is unrivaled in the NFL.

How someone looks during offseason work, with contact essentially prohibited, has to be taken with a grain of salt. But before Bell and the team failed to agree to a long-term deal, as news surfaced that would be the case, Mark Kaboly of The Athletic was complementary of Steelers’ No. 2 running back James Conner.

The Steelers drafted Conner in the third round of the 2017 draft (No. 105 overall). He had  productive sophomore and senior seasons at Pitt in 2014 and 2016, with a torn right MCL and a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis the season in-between.

As a rookie last year, as expected behind Bell, Conner had just 32 carries for 144 yards in 14 games. His season ended also early with a torn MCL in his left knee, and a left shoulder injury limited Conner in training camp. So his ability to hold up with a big workload in the NFL is a question, even with 200-plus carry seasons in last two fully functional college seasons. And that leaves aside just 30 career receptions at Pitt (21 in 2016).

Kaboly may have offered strictly his own observation of how Conner looked this offseason, as a consolation to fans. But it also reeks of something the Steelers want out there, in an ongoing effort to dismiss Bell in the public eye.

Barring an injury or a surprising extended holdout, the Steelers don’t need a significant plan to replace Bell until 2019. Giving Conner a bit more work this season would help clarify things, one way or the other. But for a team with a rapidly closing window to win as currently constructed, banking on what will likely still be an unproven commodity as a key cog in the offense will be a great leap of faith.

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