James Conner

Steelers WR Antonio Brown Won’t Play Today

The Steelers need a lot to go right today if they have any hope of making the postseason. Unfortunately, they’ll have to play today’s key game without their star wideout. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports (via Twitter) that receiver Antonio Brown is inactive for today’s game against the Bengals.

Brown missed several practices this week, and he was listed as questionable with a knee injury. The 30-year-old also underwent tests on the knee, with the injury ultimately keeping him out of his first game of the season. Brown was having another standout season for Pittsburgh, hauling in 104 receptions for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns. Of course, the Steelers still shouldn’t have a tough time against a Bengals team that has allowed the third-most passing yards in the NFL, especially with Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster still leading the passing attack.

While Brown is out for today’s game, Schefter reports that the Steelers will have running back James Conner. The 23-year-old hasn’t played since early December as he recovered from an ankle injury. In 12 games this season, Conner’s compiled 909 rushing yards and 12 rushing scores on 201 carries. He’s also added another 52 receptions for 467 yards and one touchdown.

The Steelers need more than a win today over the Bengals if they want to make the playoffs. Rather, they’ll also need the Ravens to lose to the Browns. Pittsburgh could also make the playoffs with a tie and a Ravens’ loss.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Extra Points: Keenum, Broncos, Steelers, Conner, Clemson, 2019 NFL Draft

Case Keenum was the best story of the 2017 NFL season, and parlayed his magical run with the Vikings into a two year $36MM contract with the Broncos. While Keenum has had some nice moments this year, he’s mostly been a big disappointment. The Broncos clinched a losing season with their loss last night to the Raiders, and Keenum threw a pair of awful interceptions. With Vance Joseph a near lock to be fired at the end of the season, Denver will have an entirely new coaching staff next year with no ties to Keenum.

Only $7MM of his salary is guaranteed for next season, so the Broncos could realistically cut him this spring. Denver’s decision on whether to keep him “may have more to do with who else is available” than anything else, according to Nicki Jhabvala of The Athletic. Jhabvala notes that there may not be a Kirk Cousins-esque surefire starter available in free agency, and that could ensure that Keenum stays another year. Even if he is still on the team in 2019, he’ll likely be competing with a highly drafted rookie.

  • The Steelers are on the brink of being eliminated from playoff contention, and need a win over the Bengals and a Browns victory over the Ravens in Week 17 to win the AFC North and sneak into the postseason. They’ll need all hands on deck, and could be getting a big boost on offense for the must-win game. James Conner has missed the last few weeks with a high ankle sprain, but has a “realistic chance” to play this week, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network (Twitter link). Jaylen Samuels has filled in admirably in the backfield, but getting Conner back would still be huge.
  • A trio of Clemson players have failed drug tests ahead of the College Football Playoff, per Jori Epstein of USA Today. The most notable of the group is defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who has been projected by many as a first round pick in the 2019 NFL draft. While any incident like this could hurt a player’s draft stock, it should be noted that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is standing firmly behind his players and denying they used any performance enhancing substances, “saying the test results revealed ‘a sliver, a trace, a fraction’ of a drug he’d never heard of before.” We should know more details soon, but teams will surely be asking Lawrence about this at the combine.
  • In case you missed it, former Chiefs and Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis is reportedly eyeing a return to the NFL.

North Notes: Big Ben, Ravens, Stefanski

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a rib injury in last week’s upset loss to the Raiders, and Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reports that Big Ben actually cracked his ribs (video link). Pittsburgh was reportedly unable to make that determination during the game due to a faulty X-ray machine in Oakland, but Rapoport says the injury should not limit Roethlisberger going forward. The Steelers face a critical matchup against New England this afternoon, so they will need Roethlisberger to battle through.

The team is unlikely to have starting running back James Conner when they take on the Patriots, but Rapoport tweets that Conner should be back for next Sunday’s game in New Orleans.

Now for more from the league’s north divisions:

  • The Ravens have frequently seen their defensive coaches and coordinators obtain promotions from rival clubs, and they could see more of the same in 2019. Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports writes that Baltimore defensive coordinator Don Martindale, in his first year leading the team’s defense after six years as its linebackers coach, is garnering attention around the league as a legitimate head coaching candidate. La Canfora suggests that Martindale could even replace John Harbaugh in Baltimore if the Ravens elect to part ways with Harbaugh.
  • We heard last week that plenty of teams with expected head coaching vacancies are interested in what the Ravens plan to do with Harbaugh, and Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk writes that the buzz around Harbaugh is continuing to build. Baltimore could retain the man who may be the hottest head coaching candidate in 2019, but it could also leverage the interest in Harbaugh’s services and try to trade him.
  • La Canfora writes that Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, who was just promoted to the role earlier this week, was already being considered for head coaching jobs before he took over as Minnesota’s OC. Obviously, how the club’s offense performs down the stretch and perhaps into the playoffs will go a long way towards determining Stefanski’s 2019 prospects, but La Canfora reports that teams are conducting preliminary research on him, and a strong playoff push could solidify his chances of running his own team next season.
  • Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict suffered a concussion earlier this month, and he will miss his second consecutive game when the Bengals take on the Raiders today. As Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer writes, Burfict is experiencing several worrying trends. 2018 marks the third consecutive year that Burfict has served a suspension to start the season and suffered a December concussion to close it out. He has now sustained a concussion in five of the last six seasons, and between the missed time for injury and for suspension, Dehner suggests that the Bengals could be ready to move on. The league is moving away from players with Burfict’s skill set, Burfict is not playing particularly well when he is on the field these days, and the club could save $6.8MM against the cap by cutting him this offseason.

 

James Conner Unlikely To Face Patriots

The Steelers have a recent history of being shorthanded at key offensive spots when they face the Patriots, and it appears Sunday will continue that trend.

James Conner‘s ankle injury is likely to keep him out of Sunday’s game against New England, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reports (on Twitter). While Conner is expected to return for Week 16 against the Saints, the Steelers will have to go with Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley for a second straight game.

Injured during the Steelers’ Week 13 loss to the Chargers, Conner had not made the same kind of impact in November that he did during the first half of the season. Le’Veon Bell‘s replacement was held under 100 yards from scrimmage from Weeks 10-13, this coming after he’d exceeded that barrier in Pittsburgh’s previous four games (all wins). Nevertheless, Pittsburgh is now down to what would have been its third-string running back if Bell had played this season.

The Steelers last season lost Antonio Brown during the first half of their close loss to the Patriots — one that determined the AFC’s No. 1 seed. In the 2016 AFC championship game, Bell left in the first quarter and did not return in a blowout defeat. Ben Roethlisberger did not play in a regular-season loss to the Patriots in Pittsburgh that year, and the Steelers lost to the Pats in Week 1 of the 2015 season during a Bell suspension. The Steelers have not beaten the Patriots since 2011.

Neither the Steelers nor the Patriots are playing on the level they did last season, however, lowering the stakes for this year’s matchup. But while New England remains in command of the AFC East, Pittsburgh may be one loss away from ceding AFC North control to Baltimore. A Ravens win (over the Buccaneers) and a Steelers loss would catapult Baltimore into first place in the division and thrust Pittsburgh into a muddied wild-card mix.

A possible Pro Bowler, Conner has accumulated 1,376 yards from scrimmage and scored 13 touchdowns in his first season as the Steelers’ starter. Samuels and Ridley combined for 32 rushing yards on 16 carries in the loss to the Raiders.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

James Conner To Return In Week 15?

2018 revelation James Conner had his magical season sidetracked when he suffered an injury — which some sources believe is a high ankle sprain — during the Steelers’ loss to the Chargers last Sunday. However, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com writes that Conner “has a chance” to be back in action for Pittsburgh’s potentially critical matchup with the Patriots next week.

The Steelers are only 1/2 game up on the Ravens in the AFC North, but Baltimore will face a stiff test against the Chiefs in Kansas City this afternoon while Pittsburgh gets a favorable matchup in Oakland. But even if the Steelers can put some distance between themselves and Baltimore today, they still need to deal with New England and New Orleans, so they would love to get Conner back for the stretch run.

Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports also hears that Conner could be back next week, though Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network is a little less optimistic (video link). Rapoport says that Conner will be reevaluated tomorrow and that the Steelers are expected to be cautious with him. As such, Conner could miss the team’s Week 15 bout against the Pats. Speculatively, if the Steelers win today and the Ravens lose, Pittsburgh may be more inclined to hold Conner out for another week.

Jaylen Samuels, whom the Steelers selected in the fifth round of the 2018 draft, is expected to get the bulk of the touches in Conner’s absence. Luckily for Pittsburgh, Samuels, like Conner, is a talented receiver out of the backfield, so the Steelers should not have to alter their offensive approach to accommodate him.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Steelers’ James Conner To Miss Time

Steelers running back James Conner has been ruled out for this week’s game against the Raiders, coach Mike Tomlin announced. Initially, Conner was believed to have suffered a minor contusion, but it turns out that he has a slightly more serious sprain that will keep him out of action for at least one game. 

Conner, 23, has exceeded all expectations this year in place of star Le’Veon Bell. In 12 games (eleven starts), Conner has amassed 909 yards off of 201 carries (4.5 yards-per-carry average) and 12 rushing touchdowns. He’s also caught 52 passes for 467 yards and one receiving score, showing that he’s a more than adequate replacement for one of the sport’s most dynamic weapons.

Naturally, the Steelers will still go into Sunday’s game against Oakland as heavy favorites, even though they’re on the road. With a win, the Steelers can further solidify their odds of making the playoffs while taking another step closer towards the AFC North title.

With Conner on the sidelines, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels are expected to lead the way at running back. Meanwhile, the club will hope to get Conner back on the field for a huge Week 15 matchup against the Patriots.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Le’Veon Bell Fallout: Steelers, Conner, Jets

In becoming the first franchise-tagged player since the Chiefs’ Dan Williams in 1998 to commit to skipping an entire season, Le’Veon Bell ensured himself to be a key name in NFL business history henceforth. Steelers GM Kevin Colbert confirmed Bell did not sign his franchise tender on Tuesday and will not play in 2018. He’s likely bound for the 2019 market. Here’s the latest from the Bell front:

  • Pittsburgh’s plan will still be a transition tag, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports tweets. This will be for Bell’s would-have-been 2018 franchise tag amount ($14.5MM), though it’s not like the Steelers will be prepared to match a big offer. They have James Conner in the fold for at least two more seasons on a third-round deal and have obviously been through quite the ordeal with his predecessor. The Steelers also won’t match an offer because of a preference to avoid other teams structuring their contracts, The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly notes (subscription required). A trade could commence, but with no draft compensation attached to the transition tag, Pittsburgh wouldn’t have much leverage here.
  • While Conner delivering the same level of production Bell did in 2017 may not look great for Bell’s status as a difference-making running back, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk not only expects the soon-to-be 27-year-old running back to match Todd Gurley‘s market-shattering contract (four years, $57.5MM, $45MM guaranteed) but expects Bell to land a better deal in 2019 (Twitter link). With the cap rising by approximately $10MM annually, this could happen. It’s a major risk, though, especially given Bell’s injury and suspension history (18 missed games, counting the playoffs, due to injury). Gurley had 914 career regular-season touches prior to signing his extension; David Johnson ($13MM AAV) had just 405. Although Bell will preserve his body for a hopeful megadeal, he has 1,541 career touches — the most of any active back through an age-25 season. While it’s likely Bell will command a lucrative pact, it’s not a lock he ventures into Gurley territory.
  • As for who will pay Bell, the Colts and Jets stand to possess more than $100MM in cap space in 2019. The Bills and Raiders will also have plenty of money to spend, though both teams have needs at several positions. Kaboly pinpoints the Jets, who don’t have much in the way of long-term solutions beyond Sam Darnold, on offense. While the Jets also have needs at just about every position on offense, Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News writes they should sign Bell — even if it forces an overpay — citing Darnold’s rookie contract as a window for bigger free agent moves. This may be the team that would make Bell’s plan worthwhile. They gave out lavish deals to Darrelle Revis and Trumaine Johnson, and now Mike Maccagnan may be entering a win-or-else offseason. The Colts have not spent wildly in free agency in Chris Ballard‘s first two seasons, however.
  • Conner remains in concussion protocol, and Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes neither Jaylen Samuels nor Stevan Ridley have shown to be on his level. Citing past Steelers running backs’ absences in playoff games — including Bell, who either missed or failed to finish four postseason contests over a three-season span — Bouchette notes Conner’s health now becomes even more important if the team is to finally break through after several January letdowns this decade.

Steelers Expected To Use Transition Tag On Le’Veon Bell

Even though nothing is ever certain when it comes to Le’Veon Bell, it does not appear that Bell will report to the Steelers by the November 13 deadline, which means that he will be ineligible to play at all in 2018 (although he would still be eligible for the third-year franchise tag amount of $25MM+). Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network acknowledges that, when Bell’s camp learned that his franchise tag price would be unaffected even if he stayed away from the team for the entire year, that seemed to tip the scales in favor of a year-long holdout (video link).

Of course, the Steelers are not going to put the franchise tag on Bell, which means, as Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports writes, that the team is likely to hit him with the transition tag. That designation would allow Pittsburgh to match any offer sheet that Bell signs with a different club, but the Steelers would not receive any draft compensation in return if they elected to not match (and they almost assuredly will not match).

So even though it is mostly a moot point, the league is preparing for how the transition tag process will unfold. As La Canfora writes, the transition tag value could fall anywhere between $9.5MM and $14.5MM, and once the tag is put on, a hearing would be scheduled for an arbitrator to decide on precisely what the amount of the tag should be.

La Canfora suggests that a team could front-load an offer to Bell or guarantee him money beyond the first two years of a contract in order to entice him to sign, but he also suggests that the demand for Bell’s services could be quite tepid. Bell’s holdout and his injury/suspension history will surely give his potential suitors some pause, as will the fact that he will be another year older in 2019. While he is certainly preserving his body by not playing in 2018, Aditi Kinkhabwala of the NFL Network tweets that there are a number of “football folks” who believe that age is age and whether Bell plays this year or not will have no impact on his performance moving forward. It would certainly be interesting if the Steelers end up applying the transition tag and Bell does not get the type of interest he is clearly anticipating on the open market, because then he may have no other choice but to sign the tag and return to Pittsburgh in 2019.

More important to the Steelers at the moment is the health of James Conner, who has excelled in Bell’s absence. Conner remains in the concussion protocol, but Rapoport says the Steelers are optimistic that the second-year back will not miss any time. They would, however, love to have Bell back, as Albert Breer of TheMMQB writes. They believe he truly can be deadly on fresh legs and would enhance an already excellent offense. As Bell has still not said anything definitive to the team one way or another, Pittsburgh is hoping to see him walk through the door prior to the deadline.

Assuming Bell does not appear, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com writes that, in addition to the $14.5MM he would have received this year if he had signed his franchise tag, he will also miss out on another $200K in pension, annuity, 401K, and health reimbursement benefits, plus however that money would compound over time.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Steelers’ Conner In Concussion Protocol

Steelers running back James Conner is in concussion protocol, as Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (video link) reports. If Conner is not cleared in the next week or so, his availability against the Jaguars on Nov. 18 could be in jeopardy. 

Conner was forced out of Thursday night’s blowout win over the Panthers. During the third quarter, doctors checked out Conner in the blue medical tent and cleared him to return. Then, in the fourth quarter, he was pulled for good with the Steelers leading by 38. Conner checked out with 65 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries and the Steelers went on tow in 52-21.

Conner has 771 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the season and the club has hardly missed Le’Veon Bell. Some have speculated that the Steelers do not want Bell to return before Tuesday’s deadline, but they’ll want him back on the field if Conner is sidelined for any period of time.

Bell has been spotted playing basketball in a Pittsburgh gym, so he won’t have to travel far in order to report to the team’s facility. However, Bell only recently learned that he does not have to show up by Tuesday in order to effectively guarantee that he’ll be a free agent in March, and it’s possible that he could sit out for the entire year. For what it’s worth, team ownership expects Bell to show up for work.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Latest On Le’Veon Bell, Steelers

We learned yesterday that the Steelers final offer to running back Le’Veon Bell was worth $70MM over five years. While that deal is plenty lucrative, it may not have been as good as it sounded. NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport tweets that the deal only contained $10MM in guaranteed money. Similar to last season’s offer, Bell would have made $33MM over the first two years “in a rolling guaranteed structure.” This number would have been increased to $45MM over three years.

As Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap.com points out (via Twitter), the deal would have been “virtually identical to the cash flows of the last contract.” The boosts in value would have been based on the increase in value of the running back franchise tag.

There’s been plenty of news pertaining to Bell and the Steelers over the past few days, which naturally led to a number of reactions and observations. We compiled all of the relevant notes below:

  • While reports indicated that the Steelers had offered Bell the $70MM contract, Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, seemed to imply that that wasn’t actually the case. In fact, he seemingly backed the above report that the deal didn’t include much guaranteed money. “I am certainly not saying that what has been reported is accurate because it’s not quite frankly,” Bakari said (via SiriusXM NFL Radio on Twitter). “The most important element is the guarantee.”
  • Yesterday, Bakari said this will likely be his client’s final season in Pittsburgh. If Bell does end up going elsewhere, he’ll be the eighth player since 2013 to leave his team after being tagged (via Rapoport on Twitter). The list of players includes quarterback Kirk Cousins, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, linebacker Brian Orakpo, defensive end Greg Hardy, offensive guard Branden Albert, defensive end Michael Johnson, and defensive tackle Henry Melton. Rapoport did not include cornerback Josh Norman nor tight end Jimmy Graham, who both had unique defections after inking the franchise tag.
  • Mark Kaboly of The Athletic writes that neither the Steelers nor Bell’s camp are to blame for the lack of a long-term deal. The writer understands that the organization isn’t in a hurry to pay a running back more than $14.5MM per season. On the flip side, Kaboly believes Bell has established himself as one of the best players at his position, and he deserves to have a contract that matches his standing.
  • Could the Steelers end up rescinding Bell’s one-year, $14.5MM franchise tender? While it’s unlikely, Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com explains that it’s a possibility. The writer opines that the organization may not want to pay that kind of money to a player who will only be with the organization for one more season, especially if Bell decides to sit out regular season games. Plus, the Steelers seem to have a solid backup plan in James Conner, and they could also choose to pursue any of the available running backs still sitting on the market (a grouping that includes Adrian Peterson, Alfred Morris, or the recently-retired DeMarco Murray).
  • Fitzgerald took a look at the current “plight of the running back,” noting that Bell and his peers can’t expect to earn the same kind of money that running backs earned five or six years ago. Ultimately, even if Bell does somehow manage to snag a record-breaking contract, Fitzgerald doesn’t believe it will have a lasting impact on the running back market.