James Conner

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.

North Notes: Packers, Q. Diggs, Conner

We heard last month that the Packers would be going “back to Page 1” of their playbook, but as Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal writes, Green Bay is not going to be making any wholesale changes to its offense. In light of all of the new voices on the offensive side of the ball this year — Joe Philbin is back as OC, Frank Cignetti Jr. is in as quarterbacks coach, and there are several other staff changes besides — it made sense for all involved to thoroughly review the team’s play design and philosophy. But as Philbin said, “It’s been a process of refining, enhancing, tweaking, as opposed to, ‘Yeah we scrubbed it down.’ Yes, we went page by page. (But) we’re not starting from scratch here. These players in that locker room, they’ve done some great things.” 

Philbin, of course, is primarily referring to star quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers indicated that verbiage has changed — and Philbin acknowledged that such changes were made in order to streamline the playcalling — and that has created something of a learning curve. But passing game Jim Hostler said that the goal is for the offense to look the same as it always has with Rodgers under center, even if there are some refinements and enhancements here and there.

Now for more from the league’s north divisions:

  • Opposing defenses were already treating Packers WR Davante Adams as the team’s No. 1 wideout last season, so the departure of Jordy Nelson will not represent much of a change in that regard, as Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com writes. But Green Bay has not (yet) signed a veteran wideout to replace Nelson, so Adams will need to take on a more active role in terms of leadership. The Packers drafted three receivers this year — one each in the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds — and return 24-year-old Geronimo Allison as the presumed No. 3 WR on the depth chart, so Adams is suddenly the second-oldest player in the wide receiver room. He was not present for the start of OTAs, which caused some concern in light of his concussion history, but neither player nor team seem concerned about his availability. Head coach Mike McCarthy simply said Adams is “battling a couple things,” presumably minor injuries.
  • Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com says Quandre Diggs has a real chance to permanently supplant Tavon Wilson as the Lions‘ starting strong safety in 2018. Diggs, a former sixth-round selection, played well in that role last season, and Rothstein suggests he may even be the favorite to start at this point. Miles Killebrew, a former fourth-round choice, appears to be on the outside looking in and may need to continue to stand out on special teams to retain his roster spot.
  • James Conner, a feel-good story and 2017 third-round choice, is featuring prominently in Steelers‘ OTAs due to Le’Veon Bell‘s continued absence, as Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com writes. Conner showed flashes in his rookie campaign, which ended with a Week 15 MCL tear, but if he can cement himself as the team’s No. 2 back behind Bell this season — and he will need to improve in pass protection in order to do so — that could be the first step towards a starting job in 2019, depending on Bell’s contract situation.
  • John Ross is once again a full participant in the Bengals‘ OTAs, as Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer observes. Although Ross dropped a few passes, he also made some difficult grabs and is seeing a lot of passes come his way. Tyler Eifert, meanwhile, is a limited participant, but having both players involved at the beginning of full team work is a beautiful thing for Cincinnati fans.
  • Neil Stratton of InsideTheLeague.com (via Twitter) details a few more changes to the Browns‘ scouting department that were not covered several days ago.

Steelers Sign RB Stevan Ridley

Stevan Ridley‘s jersey collection continues to grow. On Tuesday, the Steelers announced that they have signed the running back. He’ll replace fellow RB James Conner, who is headed to IR after undergoing knee surgery.Stevan Ridley (vertical)

Ridley’s best football came during his four-year run with the Patriots, particularly in 2012. In that campaign, he totaled more than 1,200 rushing yards as well as 12 rushing touchdowns. Unfortunately, injuries have altered the course of his once-promising career. Since parting ways with the Pats, he’s been employed by the Jets, Lions, Colts, Falcons, Broncos, and Vikings. He has not been able to replicate that ’12 stat line at any of those stops. With Pittsburgh, he’ll be asked to serve as the third tailback behind starter Le’Veon Bell and Fitzgerald Toussaint, the team’s de facto No. 2 RB.

Conner, a third-round pick of the Steelers in 2017, was one of the most inspirational stories to come out of this year’s draft. The Pennsylvania native and Pitt product bounced back from a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis (not to mention a torn MCL) in 2015 to conclude his college career with a vengeance in 2016. A cancer-free Conner turned in his second thousand-yard campaign with the Panthers (1,092, on 5.1 yards per carry) and combined for 20 touchdowns (16 rushing, four receiving). This year, he became Bell’s primary understudy. His season ends with 32 catches for 144 yards.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

AFC North Notes: Lewis, Browns, Steelers

Marvin Lewis again refused to confirm the report by ESPN.com’s Adam Schefter indicating he was planning to step away from the Bengals after 15 seasons, but the veteran coach did make a comment about his desire to coach the team after this season. Asked if he wanted to coach football next season, Lewis responded, “I’m (gonna) coach football.” Asked if he wanted to coach the Bengals, Lewis replied, “Sure,” per Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer. The Bengals have been outscored 67-14 over the past two weeks and are going to finish with their second straight losing record. Lewis does not have a contract in place for 2018 after multiple years of offseason one-year extensions.

Here’s the latest out of the AFC North.

  • With the Steelers losing to the Patriots and thus unable to clinch home-field advantage in Week 16, the Browns‘ final realistic chance to avoid becoming the second 0-16 team ever could hinge on Sunday’s game in Chicago. And Hue Jackson will stick with his current quarterback for that Bears tilt. DeShone Kizer will make his 14th start of the season. This comes after Jackson admitted he considered benching the rookie after yet another shaky performance. Monday, though, Jackson said (via Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com) the Notre Dame product was “up to the challenge” of starting another game. The Browns, who face the Steelers in Pittsburgh in Week 17, are now 1-29 in Jackson’s 30 games. Kizer boasts a 59.4 quarterback rating and a 24.5 QBR.
  • Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk floated the idea of the Browns attempting to trade Jackson to the Bengals, and SI.com’s Peter King notes John Dorsey would probably rather part with Jackson than keeping the incumbent around for 2018. Florio adds Dorsey declining to answer a direct question about Jackson being back for 2018 adds fuel to the fire the Browns would consider an about-face and can Jackson after two remarkably unsuccessful seasons. Jimmy Haslam said twice publicly Jackson would be back, and Florio reports, however, the owner has said the same thing in private. An 0-16 season, though, could change the equation. King writes a third-round pick may be all that would be necessary for the Bengals to send to Cleveland in the event this hypothetical scenario occurred. The second-year Cleveland coach said Monday, however, he wasn’t interested in succeeding Lewis in Cincinnati despite the former succession plan that was in place for him with the franchise. Jackson was Cincinnati’s OC for two seasons and coached under Lewis for seven years encompassing two stints.
  • Now just one game ahead of the Jaguars (and their head-to-head tiebreaker) for the AFC’s No. 2 seed, the Steelers will have to reshuffle their running back corps for the time being. Le’Veon Bell will need a new backup for the time being after Mike Garafolo of NFL.com revealed (on Twitter) James Conner will need knee surgery. Garafolo reports the rookie will likely need a few weeks to recover from this. Like Antonio Brown‘s regular-season-ending calf injury, Conner’s setback adds additional incentive for the Steelers to secure a bye by winning their final two games. Pittsburgh has veteran Fitzgerald Toussaint as the only other halfback on its roster.

Steelers Sign James Conner

The Steelers have signed third-round running back James Conner, Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle was among those to report (via Twitter). With Conner joining fifth-round cornerback Brian Allen, sixth-round long snapper Colin Holba and seventh-round linebacker Keion Adams under contract, Pittsburgh has now signed half of its eight-pick class.

James Conner

Conner, a Pennsylvania native who was among the nation’s best backs with Pitt, is now in position to make an NFL impact in his home state. Of course, the 105th overall pick also comes with an inspirational story, having bounced back from a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis (not to mention a torn MCL) in 2015 to conclude his college career with a vengeance last season. A cancer-free Conner turned in his second thousand-yard campaign with the Panthers (1,092, on 5.1 yards per carry) and combined for 20 touchdowns (16 rushing, four receiving). In parts of four seasons at Pitt, he found the end zone 56 times (52 on the ground).

With the Steelers lacking established NFLers behind starting running back Le’Veon Bell, Conner should serve as the two-time Pro Bowler’s top backup in 2017. It’s possible Conner will end up as the Steelers’ starter in 2018 if Bell walks as a free agent next offseason, but the team hopes to sign the franchise tag recipient to an extension in the coming months.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Extra Points: Raiders, Cowboys, Redskins, Draft

More details of Oakland’s scrutinized plan to keep the Raiders emerged this weekend, but things aren’t too much smoother on the Las Vegas front for the franchise. As recently as two weeks ago, Mark Davis was told he did not have enough votes from his fellow owners to move the team to Sin City, Ray Ratto of CSNBayArea.com reports.

This status could obviously change since a relocation vote hasn’t been scheduled yet, but the Raiders owner has not participated in the Oakland plan. Despite owners’ public preferences on Vegas mostly a mystery at this juncture, although obvious hesitancy persists due to the market size and Vegas’ gambling connections, the recent emergence of a Bay Area plan without the Raiders on board leaves the league in a strange spot regarding the future of one of its most famous franchises.

Ratto notes the NFL is not particuarly fond of a business arrangement with either Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas, or the Fortress Group in the Bay Area despite Ronnie Lott‘s involvement. He can envision a scenario where the league stalls this process until one of the solutions becomes tenable in its view.

Here’s more from around the league on the eve of Week 14 Sunday.

  • Today’s extension for Jamar Taylor could mean the new Browns regime is eyeing a trade of Joe Haden. The veteran corner has struggled in back-to-back seasons, and Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com tweets the Browns will potentially see what kind of market exists for the veteran corner on draft weekend. Pro Football Focus rates Haden as its No. 96 overall corner, and the former first-round pick — signed to a five-year, $67.5MM deal in May of 2014 — played in just five games in 2015.
  • The Cowboys will be playing without return specialist Lucky Whitehead against the Giants due apparently to a Snapchat-induced issue, Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram tweets. A team-rules violation officially kept Whitehead from traveling with the team to New Jersey, and Charean Williams and Drew Davison of the Star-Telegram report a missed meeting factored into this as well. Whitehead’s returned 19 punts and 10 kickoffs this season. Lance Dunbar and Cole Beasley are listed as the specialty backups.
  • Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson are headed for free agency and it has been said that the Redskins will not retain both players. Which wide receiver should be retained? Mark Bullock of The Washington Post dove deep into game footage to figure out which player is more valuable for Washington. He concludes that the Redskins should keep Jackson because he is still a legitimate deep threat, something the team lacks without him. In addition to his own touchdown bombs, Bullock says that DJax can open up space for Jordan Reed and Jamison Crowder.
  • Reed is expected to return to action Sunday against the Eagles after missing Week 13 with a shoulder injury, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com tweets.
  • Cancer survivor James Conner will forego his final season at Pittsburgh and enter the draft, Jared Shanker of ESPN.com reports. Conner scored 56 touchdowns — the most in ACC history — in just three seasons and beat Hodgkin’s Lymphoma just as Eric Berry did. The running back claimed ACC player of the year honors in 2014 but tore his MCL a year later and misssed that season. The cancer diagnosis came in December of 2015, but Conner returned to the field in September and rushed for 1,060 yards this season. He joins Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and D’Onta Foreman as early-entry backs but isn’t expected to go in the first or second round like that trio is.

Zach Links contributed to this report