James Conner

Steelers GM Kevin Colbert On Contract Status, Ben Roethlisberger

Last summer, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert indicated he did not want to enter into a multi-year extension with the team, as he prefers to take things on a year-to-year basis. Earlier this month, the 63-year-old signed another one-year contract with the club to remain in his general manager post through the 2020 campaign.

But in a meeting with Steelers beat writers today, Colbert indicated he is not thinking about quitting anytime soon. “As long as the Rooneys and the Pittsburgh Steelers want me to be a part of this organization and it’s a good thing for our family, we’ll be here,” Colbert said. “I’m not looking to ever go anywhere else again as long as the Rooneys and the Steelers are interested in me” (Twitter link via Brooke Pryor of ESPN.com).

So while Colbert may prefer the flexibility that his one-year extensions afford him, it sounds as if he will continue to lead the Pittsburgh front office for as long as the team wants him to and for as long as his personal life permits. And for good reason. Colbert joined the Steelers in 2000, was promoted from director of football operations to GM in 2010, and has helped build two Super Bowl-winning teams and 12 playoff squads over the years.

In his conversation, Colbert also discussed the status of QB Ben Roethlisberger. We heard in December that Big Ben is expected to make a full recovery from surgery to reattach three tendons in his right arm, and Colbert said today that he believes Roethlisberger’s rehab is going in the right direction (Twitter link via Pryor). The veteran signal-caller has a checkup in Los Angeles on February 21.

Colbert further indicated that the injuries that plagued JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, and Vance McDonald last year would not impact their long-term availability (Twitter link via Pryor). And in other Steelers news, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tweets that the Steelers are expected to hire a new WR coach any day now. The team is deciding between Jerricho Cotchery and Bryan McClendon.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Injury Notes: Eagles, Jacobs, Steelers, Hawks

Afflicted with injuries to their receiving corps for most of the season, the Eagles will be severely shorthanded on this front in their win-and-in game Sunday. In addition to Nelson Agholor missing another game, Zach Ertz is not ready to return. Carson Wentz‘s top target will miss Week 17 due to back and ribs injuries. Ertz left the Eagles’ Week 16 win, leaving second-year tight end Dallas Goedert as Wentz’s most proven target.

Here is the latest from Philadelphia and other contending teams’ injury situations going into the regular season’s final Sunday:

  • While the Eagles are stripped of their top three wide receivers and their premier tight end, Jordan Howard will return. The fourth-year running back missed Philadelphia’s past six games due to a shoulder injury. The Eagles’ leading rusher when the injury surfaced at the midseason point, Howard will rejoin a backfield that’s seen more from Miles Sanders and some contributions from Boston Scott.
  • Moving to another playoff hopeful’s running back situation, the Raiders will be without Josh Jacobs on Sunday in Denver. The team declared Jacobs out, meaning he will miss a third game in his past four. Their offensive rookie of the year candidate is battling a shoulder malady and a skin condition, the latter prompting him to undergo a minor surgery this week. Jacobs missed Week 14 and Week 16 due to a shoulder injury. Free agent-to-be DeAndre Washington has filled in well for Jacobs, amassing 202 scrimmage yards in those two games. The Raiders need to win and receive another Sunday of good fortune to make the playoffs.
  • One of the teams the Raiders need to lose Sunday will be shorthanded on the ground as well. James Conner will miss the Steelers‘ regular-season finale, joining Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey in that regard. After missing a chunk of Pittsburgh’s season with a shoulder injury, Conner is now dealing with a quad problem. Pouncey is down due to a knee ailment.
  • Most of the non-Marshawn Lynch Seahawks news this week centers around the players who will not be available Sunday night, but the team will have some key players back in uniform. Jadeveon Clowney and Shaquill Griffin missed Seattle’s past two games but will be on the field in Sunday’s de facto NFC West championship game against San Francisco. Clowney is still battling the core issue that he initially played through but one that’s caused him to miss time.
  • The 49ers placed another defensive lineman on IR. Defensive tackle Jullian Taylor will end his season on the injured list because of an ACL tear sustained in practice this week, Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area notes. A 2018 seventh-round pick, Taylor played in six 49ers games this season. Defensive linemen Taylor, Ronald Blair, D.J. Jones and Damontre Moore reside on San Francisco’s IR list.

Steelers RB James Conner Out, Juju Smith-Schuster Doubtful

The Steelers will already be shorthanded this Sunday against the Bengals after the NFL upheld a two-game suspension on starting center Maurkice Pouncey, but it appears injuries could be removing their two most important offensive weapons as well. Pittsburgh’s star running back James Conner is out this week with a shoulder injury and “it’s not looking good” for wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster either, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.

Pittsburgh’s season looked doomed early on when longtime starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury. However, backup Mason Rudolph has managed to play well enough to keep the Steelers on the periphery of playoff contention. Of course, the presence of two elite weapons like Conner and Smith-Schuster has surely helped ease Rudolph’s transition.

Conner has struggled with durability through his three-year professional career, but remains an effective weapon when healthy. On the season, Conner has 390 rushing yards and possibly more importantly has averaged more than 8 yards a reception catching passes. Smith-Schuster has maintained solid production even amidst a down year for the receiver. Starting every game on the season thus far, Smith-Schuster has accrued 524 receiving yards on 38 receptions.

North Notes: Steelers, Burnett, Lions

If you’ve missed the latest Thursday-night game, injuries have limited the Steelers. Pittsburgh lost JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner; the former suffered a concussion and the latter re-injured the AC joint that sidelined him for the past two games. Both are out for the rest of the Browns game, as are cornerback Artie Burns and wideout Diontae Johnson (due to a knee injury and a concussion, respectively). This is Smith-Schuster’s third known concussion since coming into the league. He suffered two as a rookie in 2017.

Here is the latest from the North divisions:

  • Both of the Browns‘ starting safeties are out of tonight’s game. Shortly before Damarious Randall was ejected for a helmet-to-helmet hit, the Browns lost Morgan Burnett. The ex-Packers and Steelers defender suffered what the Browns fear is a significant Achilles injury, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.com (on Twitter). After being relegated to a part-time role in his one Pittsburgh season, Burnett has been a full-time starter in Cleveland.
  • The NFL is looking into the Lions‘ handling of Matthew Stafford‘s back injury, Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com notes. Multiple Lions players were informed Saturday that Stafford would not play, but Detroit had called the quarterback a game-time decision. Stafford has been playing through back pain all season. The league requires teams to update their injury reports if it has been decided, prior to a team’s stadium arrival, a player will not play.
  • With Michael Pierce battling an injury, the Ravens bolstered their defensive tackle corps with two veteransDomata Peko and Justin Ellis.

James Conner Expected To Play Week 11

More good news for the surging Steelers. After winning four in a row, Pittsburgh is firmly in the AFC playoff picture, and as Brooke Pryor of ESPN.com writes, the club is expected to have starting running back James Conner back on the field for Thursday night’s matchup against the division-rival Browns.

Conner has missed the past two games with a shoulder injury, and the Steelers’ rushing attack has suffered as a result. The team averaged 1.6 yards per carry against the Rams on Sunday and just 3.6 yards per carry against the Colts the week before. While Pittsburgh won both contests — largely as a result of its play-making defense — it clearly needs a strong run game to support young QB Mason Rudolph.

Conner himself has struggled to get untracked this year, as he is averaging under four yards per tote, but he did post 23 carries for 145 yards and a score in the Steeler’s win over the Dolphins in Week 8 before suffering the shoulder injury. He is also a useful receiving weapon and represents a clear upgrade over the likes of Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds.

As Pryor notes, Conner is not fully healed, but he expects that he will be able to manage his pain well enough to handle a full workload. “I’m making a lot of progress on it, and I think I’ll be good to go [on Thursday],” Conner said. “I can’t make no guarantees, but as of right now, I’m feeling very good and things are feeling very confident for me playing on Thursday.”

The team announced that it released RB Darrin Hall from its practice squad, which is another indication that Conner will play on Thursday. To replace Hall, the Steelers added LB Sutton Smith to the taxi squad.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

North Notes: Vikings, Conner, JuJu, Lions

The 2017 draft class will become extension-eligible in January, and Dalvin Cook‘s contract figures to be one the key talking points once the calendar flips to the 2020 offseason. The Vikings are one of the few teams to have paid a running back top-market money, via Adrian Peterson‘s $14.4MM-AAV pact from 2011. With Cook’s contract not containing a fifth-year option like Christian McCaffrey‘s does, the Vikings will likely have to address his deal sooner than the Panthers will need to negotiate with their All-Pro candidate. Ezekiel Elliott‘s $15MM-per-year deal represents the new running back benchmark. Although Cook has been injury-prone, he will surely seek a contract in the Elliott-Todd GurleyLe’Veon BellDavid Johnson tax bracket (north of $13MM annually).

Running backs are valuable,” Cook said, via ESPN.com’s Courtney Cronin. “For guys to get rewarded for how physical, how much they get their bodies ready each and every week to go take that pounding, guys [are] getting rewarded for that. The running back value kind of went down, but I think we’re just as valuable as any position.”

Here is the latest from the North divisions:

  • Adam Thielen will not play Sunday night. The Vikings ruled out their highest-paid wide receiver for Week 10’s Cowboys contest. Thielen has dealt with this hamstring injury since Week 7, missing Minnesota’s game against the Redskins and exiting last week’s Chiefs game after seven snaps.
  • One of Cook’s 2017 draft classmates, James Conner, will also need at least another week to recover from injury. The Steelers ruled out Conner for Week 10. They also added JuJu Smith-Schuster to this week’s injury report Friday. Pittsburgh’s top wideout is questionable to face the Rams with a toe injury.
  • Lions safety Miles Killebrew suffered a concussion during Thursday’s practice, Kyle Meinke of MLive.com notes. The Lions moved Killebrew to linebacker last year, but the trade of Quandre Diggs and Tracy Walker‘s knee injury prompted the team to shift Killebrew back to safety recently. UFA addition Tavon Wilson, third-round rookie Will Harris and rookie UDFA C.J. Moore are the Lions’ only healthy safeties. Killebrew and Walker are out for Sunday’s Bears tilt
  • The Lions’ two-year extension for Christian Jones features a short-term sacrifice for a 2020 payment. The deal reduces the linebacker’s 2019 salary from $2.45MM to the veteran minimum, which will be worth approximately $426K for the season’s remainder. In exchange, Jones will receive a $1.97MM signing bonus, Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com tweets. The through-2021 deal averages $2.92MM. Detroit tacked on a voidable 2022 year, in order to spread the bonus across three seasons instead of two.

Injury Updates: Brissett, Conner, Thielen

The Colts have been having a surprisingly strong season after Andrew Luck retired, but everyone in Indy was left holding their breath when Jacoby Brissett went down with a knee injury. After the game, head coach Frank Reich said it was a sprain that was “MCL-ish.” Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like Brissett tore anything. Quarterbacks can usually play through MCL sprains, so it doesn’t sound like Brissett will be on the shelf too long. Brian Hoyer filled in and had the Colts in position to win the game late, but Adam Vinatieri missed a 43-yard kick with a minute to go.

Here are more injury updates from around the league:

  • Steelers rookie running back Benny Snell had surgery to trim his meniscus recently and will be sidelined for 2-3 weeks, a source told Ian Rapoport of NFL Network (Twitter link). Snell was a fourth-round pick back in April. Speaking of Pittsburgh’s backfield, starter James Conner didn’t suit up against the Colts today, and Adam Schefter of ESPN.com tweets that he’s in danger of missing next week’s game against the Rams. For now, Jaylen Samuels will continue to gobble up most of the snaps.
  • Standout rookie UDFA Preston Williams suffered a knee injury, casting a damper on the Dolphins’ first win of the season. Despite going undrafted Williams has become a key player for Miami, starting all of their games thus far. The injury is a “sprained knee and the hope is that it’s not more serious,” tweets Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. We should know more about the severity soon. Williams had five catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns in the win over the Jets before going down.
  • Vikings receiver Adam Thielen returned after a one-game absence due to a hamstring injury, and quickly re-aggravated it. He didn’t return to Minnesota’s loss to Kansas City, and while there’s no word yet on the severity, hamstring issues can linger. They’ll likely be more cautious about rushing their star receiver back this time.

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.