James Conner: 2020 Fantasy Bounceback, Remains "Featured Runner" - Roto Street Journal
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James Conner: 2020 Fantasy Bounceback, Remains “Featured Runner”

By all accounts, James Conner was an enormous fantasy bust in 2019. Drafted in most first rounds, he finished as the RB35, below Jamaal Williams and Adrian Peterson. Conner only played eight full games, getting knocked out with separate knee, ankle, shoulder, and thigh ailments.

Still, after the team passed on any marquee Free Agent or Rookie RBs, Conner’s stars may be aligning for a massive 2020 fantasy bounceback.

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Let’s not forget: Conner is just one year removed from a 2018 Fantasy MVP season. Filling in for Le’Veon Bell, Conner amassed  270 touches (55 rec), 1470 toal yards and 13 TDs in only 13 GP — good for the RB6 in fantasy. In ESPN Leagues, just owning Conner gave you a 75.9% chance at making the playoffs.

While Conner isn’t overly flashy of a talent, he’s a three-down, steady-handed bruiser who churns for consistent chunk gains — he was fourth in runs of 15+ yards (15) in 2018.

More important, however, is volume — the gasoline to the engine of fantasy success.

Mos expected Conner to take a major usage hit after his injury-ridden campaign. By adding only fourth-round rookie Anthony McFarland, Conner instead received a major vote of confidence from Mike Tomlin.

Tomlin recently admitted “I’m a featured-runner type guy by mentality.” Toss out last year’s disaster, and this couldn’t be a clearer truth:

Sure, it’s easy to ride a special talent like Le’Veon Bell, and many may assume this inflated those numbers.

Yet, just look at how Tomlin used an ancient DeAngelo Williams across 14 starts when Bell was injured (2015-16):

364 touch (59 rec), 1785 total yard, 16 TD pace. Conner was similarly ridden hard.

Though not as prolific, even Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall routinely averaged 20+ touches per game under Tomlin prior to Bell’s arrival.

Simply put: Tomlin loves his workhorses, and he has already crowned Conner as the king to this invaluable role in 2020:

“James is a featured guy and proven runner when healthy,” Tomlin said. “We’re excited about him getting back to health and displaying that in 2020.”

This is quite contrarian to an NFL that’s trending more towards committee backfields and shared workloads. Yet, Tomlin justified it as a “rhythm” and “leadership” type of treatment:

“I think that when you have a featured runner, it gives him the opportunity to drop a stake in the ground and allows others to rally around him, and it gives him a set of core base run plays that he specializes in, and you find a rhythm that way.

“Usually when it’s going well, it’s because you have a lead dog out front, and that guy is the featured runner.”

Thus, Conner’s workload no longer remains a question. We’ve already seen what he’s capable of doing with the heavy volume when Ben Roethlisberger is at QB.

Hell, even last year with steaming garbage under center, Conner averaged 17.4 FPPG in the contests that he fully finished, good for the RB9 last season.

He’s going to see the work, and we know he’ll perform well with it. Those shouldn’t be mysteries any longer.

Whether Conner can actually withstand this featured treatment, however, is entirely valid to ponder. I’d bet on at least 3+ missed games.

Nonetheless, he’ll be in the same exact “Tomlin Horse” role that yielded an RB6 finish just two seasons ago, and has produced better than RB3 number averages for the last three featured backs.

Best of all, the price of admission is a meager fourth round pick. If you’re a “Bellcow Breeder” like myself, Conner could serve as your flex-RB, and provide Top-7 RB weekly numbers whenever you have him. If that’s ultimately 12+ games, he’d be a season-winner at that price.


  • Founder of Roto Street Journal. Lover of workhorse backs, target hog wideouts, and Game of Thrones. Aspiring to be the "Brady" and "Leo" of the fantasy universe.

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