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Analysis: James Conner’s disappointing 2019 makes RB priority for Steelers


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James Conner. – MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

During a season in which the offense went down in flames, James Conner might have had the most disappointing performance.

Conner went from posting 1,470 yards from scrimmage and earning a Pro Bowl bid in 2018 to managing just 715 scrimmage yards during an injury-ravaged 2019. He averaged just 4.0 yards per carry, down from 4.5 in '18, and that drop off can't be entirely blamed on an underachieving offensive line or teams stacking the box against him. Conner trucked people during his big 2018 season, breaking a tackle every 10.8 rushing attempts, according to Pro Football Reference. That was the third-best broken tackle rate among all running backs who had at least 200 carries.

This past year, Conner broke a tackle every 23.2 rushing attempts. That was the third-worst broken tackle rate among all qualified running backs. And in 2019, Conner actually faced eight or more defenders in the box way less (13.8 percent of the time) compared to 2018 (27.9 percent), according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Conner wasn't on the field nearly enough in 2019 and, when he was, he didn't have the same brute strength.

That's why the Steelers could be in the market for a number one back.

A cap casualty? The Steelers signed Mark Barron last offseason to increase the team's pass coverage prowess at middle linebacker. But after a forgettable 2019 season, Barron--who has a cap hit of about $8.1 million next year--could be on his way out of Pittsburgh. Opponents completed 73.2 percent of passes when targeting Barron on coverage, while posting a 96.1 passer rating, according to Pro Football Reference. Barron had one of the 30 worst passer rating against among all NFL linebackers. For comparison's sake, he allowed a 59.5 percent completion rate and an 84.7 passer rating against during his last season with the Rams in 2018. The Steelers could save approximately $5.25 million against the cap by cutting Barron, according to the Over the Cap website. It wouldn't be surprising to see GM Kevin Colbert go that route.

Haden holding it down: For the most part, NFL cornerbacks age in dog years. Once they lose a step, it's a steep and rapid decline from Pro Bowl to pink slip. Don't tell that to Joe Haden, though. The 30-year-old is still among the game's elite. Haden smothered receivers to the tune of a 60.9 passer rating when targeted in coverage, which placed fourth among NFL corners in 2019. He also earned high marks in yards per passing target (5.7, seventh in the league) and he snatched six interceptions (tied for second). The Steelers have to feel pretty good about having this guy under contract through the 2021 season for a combined $22 million.

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