Paul Zeise: James Conner is far more than a great story
April 20, 2017 12:48 PM
Pitt running back James Conner at the team's pro day in March.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
James Conner was a junior in high school when he begged his mother for $50 because he wanted to place a bet. That $50 bet turned into a scholarship worth roughly $200,000.
Conner wasn’t betting on sports or horses, though — he had placed a bet on himself. The money was the fee for a one-day prospect camp at Pitt, and Conner knew if he could attend, he could catch the coaching staff’s eye and earn a scholarship. The odds weren’t in his favor as a two-star recruit, but overcoming long odds is something Conner has thrived on.
That camp story is one of many things that Conner shares about himself in an open letter to NFL general managers Thursday on The Players’ Tribune. Conner mainly wants to make it clear he isn’t just the “player who came back from cancer,” he’s talented and ready to help a team win. He beat cancer and returned from ACL surgery in the past two years but now is strong and ready to go.
“I’m 100% healthy. I have a clean scan showing I’m still cancer free,” Conner wrote. “The knee injury I suffered a few years ago is fully healed, and I played the whole season on it without any pain. I don’t even think about it anymore. My endurance is all the way back, too. I feel good.”
His story is inspiring, but the real question is: How good can he be in the NFL?
He is projected mostly as a fourth- or fifth-round pick. Sports Illustrated has him as the 12th best running back in the draft. That seems awfully low to me.
Maybe it’s because I’m so familiar with his story and talent but I have a hard time believing there are 100 players better than him in this draft. I’ve watched Conner’s Superman act — I don’t believe there’s anything he can’t accomplish or overcome. That’s why I’d draft him early, but my job isn’t tied to how well I draft players.
He’s also right, it’s time for people to look beyond his story and take a closer look at his talent. Conner isn’t just a good running back, he’s a heck of a football player, period. He’s a winner, the kind of player a team drafts and figures out how many ways he can help it succeed. He earned his scholarship as a defensive end but played running back his senior season at Erie McDowell, continuing that at Pitt. That’s not an easy positional transition, and at times he played both ways at Pitt. Last season, Conner caught 21 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns out of the backfield. He can play all three downs because he excels in pass protection. Add all of that up and throw in his work ethic, and you have one of the most versatile players in the draft. He’s a prime candidate to be a special teams ace on top of everything else he offers.
Conner visited the Steelers, who are in the market for a backup running back to Le’Veon Bell. He fits their style — a solid combination of power and speed — and work ethic, and Mike Tomlin seems to love players who can fill multiple roles.
I’m not saying the Steelers should draft him; they do have other needs. However, if he’s still on the board when they make their second pick in the third round (No. 105 overall) they absolutely should think about it. That’s not for sentimental reasons — Conner simply would make the Steelers better.
Five years ago, Conner bet on himself and it paid off. Now he’s asking an NFL team to do the same, promising they’ll hit the jackpot if they do. The team that takes him will get a someone with a great story, but more importantly, they will get a great football player.
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