James Conner

COVID-19 Latest: Bubble, Ravens, Vaccine

Despite skyrocketing COVID-19 numbers nationwide, the NFL’s stance remains that postseason games will occur at team venues. Although no final decision has surfaced, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills and union president J.C. Tretter providing anti-bubble statements provides a good indication no one- or two-site postseason will commence. This pours cold water on an in-case-of-emergency bubble scenario the league was considering last month. But no real bubble momentum has emerged since the pandemic began.

There’s not magic about a bubble. In fact, there’s the same challenges within a bubble. Let’s be clear: COVID-19 does not fear a bubble,” Tretter said. “The vulnerability inside a bubble is the same, which is full compliance of protocol at all times. We believe that it’s all about compliance, and compliance with the things that we know avoid risk is important, whether you’re all together in an isolated environment, or whether you’re in your community.

It’s all about the daily measures that work — mask-wearing, avoidance of sick individuals, rapid reporting of symptoms, good hand hygiene, physical distance, avoiding those high-risk exposures. Those principles won’t change.”

The NBA’s Orlando bubble produced zero positive COVID tests for several weeks, however, and Major League Baseball’s multi-site bubble setup did not produce a positive case until the Justin Turner saga in Game 6 of the World Series. While the NFL has bulked up its coronavirus protocols as the season has progressed, the league going without a postseason bubble stands to bring greater chances star players miss playoff games — especially with the coronavirus environment having changed since the NBA and MLB postseasons.

Here is the latest from the virus front:

  • The Ravens are steadily seeing players return to work after testing positive for the virus. The team activated Mark Andrews and Matt Judon from its reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday, putting both starters in line to face the Browns on Monday night. Both players missed two Baltimore games.
  • Ditto for James Conner. After missing the past two Steelers games, Conner is back on Pittsburgh’s active roster after his positive virus test.
  • The Panthers placed eight players on their virus list earlier this week but have since moved one of them back to their active roster. While it is unknown which members of that octet are COVID-positive, Greg Little is not. The Panthers removed the second-year tackle from their virus list Wednesday.
  • Chargers starting tackle Trey Pipkins is back on the virus list. The Bolts placed the second-year blocker on their list for the second time this season. Because he was identified as a close contact of then-COVID-positive center Ryan Groy, Pipkins landed on Los Angeles’ virus list for one day in late October.
  • The NFL is proceeding as if a vaccine will not be available to its players and staff this season. Although multiple vaccines are in the final stages, Sills and the NFLPA concur players should not be receiving vaccines at the same juncture that front-line workers or at-risk members of the population will, Twitter links via the Washington Post’s Mark Maske and SI.com’s Albert Breer. Vaccines, however, figure to have a massive impact on the 2021 season.

AFC North Notes: Ravens, Conner, Steelers

We learned that Ravens tight end Mark Andrews was the latest member of Baltimore’s organization to test positive for COVID-19 in yesterday’s round, and there apparently were more this morning. There were multiple player/staff positives in Sunday’s round of testing, a source told Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com. At least one of those positives was receiver Willie Snead, Jamison Hensley of The Athletic tweets. As he notes, Snead is the seventh offensive starter to test positive, and there have now been eight consecutive days with a positive test within the team.

Florio writes that it’s believed the league will opine these positives are a result of the “tail end” of the outbreak, and that Tuesday’s game against the Steelers is still on for now. Meanwhile the Ravens are planning on convening at their facility tonight in order to condition and then have a walkthrough tomorrow, Jay Glazer of Fox Sports tweets. He notes that all work will be done on outdoor fields and players won’t be allowed inside the locker room.

Here’s more from the AFC North:

  • While the Ravens have obviously had it worse, the Steelers have also had their fair share of COVID-19 issues as they approach Tuesday night. Pittsburgh will be without both special teams coordinator Danny Smith and quarterbacks coach Matt Canada due to illnesses, Brooke Pryor of ESPN tweets. Canada plays a pretty large role in the offensive game-planning, so that’s a significant loss.
  • Pivoting away from COVID news for a moment, the Steelers have some big question marks to address this offseason. One of those is what to do with running back James Conner, who is set to be a free agent. His production has declined since his breakout 2018 campaign, and he’s also dealt with frequent nagging injuries. With those issues, Mark Kaboly of The Athletic writes that he “can’t imagine” Conner getting brought back on anything more than a one-year, prove-it deal. Kaboly thinks the team is grooming Benny Snell to potentially take over for Conner. The Pittsburgh product recently tested positive for COVID-19 himself, which obviously won’t help with his next contract. He’s shown flashes of being a potential featured back, and it’ll be very interesting to see what the market for him looks like. It’s very possible he’s not back with the Steelers in 2021.

James Conner Tests Positive For COVID-19

Should the NFL leave the Ravens-Steelers rematch at 7pm CT Tuesday — its third time slot — the Steelers will not have James Conner for the game. Conner tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL.com reports (on Twitter).

In addition to the fourth-year running back testing positive, Steelers special teams coordinator Danny Smith also submitted a positive coronavirus test, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tweets. This, of course, follows the COVID-19 outbreak at the Ravens facility. The game remains on schedule for Tuesday night.

A 2018 Pro Bowler who has played a key role in the Steelers’ first-ever 10-0 start, Conner is a cancer survivor. As of Saturday afternoon, he is not experiencing significant symptoms, Brooke Pryor of ESPN.com notes. This positive test stands to keep Conner out of the Steelers’ Week 13 game — against Washington — as well. Conner, 25, was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015. Smith has been the Steelers’ ST coordinator since 2013.

The Steelers are working on a contact-tracing effort, so more players and coaches figure to join Conner and Smith in being unavailable against the Ravens. Pittsburgh placed Stephon Tuitt and two other linemen on its virus list Friday. The Ravens have 15 players on their virus list.

Considering the alternatives to playing this game on Tuesday, the NFL will face a major decision over the next few days. The league has pushed this game back to what looks like its Week 12 fail-safe point. A makeup Week 18 window is believed to be the league’s Plan B, with Plan C being the 16-team playoff bracket that would stem from canceled regular-season games.

On pace for his second 1,000-yard season since taking the reins from Le’Veon Bell in 2018, Conner has totaled 645 rushing yards and five touchdowns this year. Benny Snell‘s 57 carries are second-most on the Steelers. His 3.4 yards-per-carry average is a yard worse than Conner’s.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

AFC Notes: Patriots, Waynes, Conner

Prior to signing a six-year, $54MM deal with the Redskins prior to the 2009 campaign, three-time Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall had the opportunity to join the Patriots. The defensive back ultimately opted for the more lucrative deal, a decision he’s now regretting.

“When I signed to play half the season with Washington in 2008, there was a line in my contract that said the team could not franchise tag me that next season. I remember negotiations for a new deal with Washington weren’t going well, and there were other teams in the picture, including New England,” Hall said (via NFL.com). “At that time, players didn’t take short-term deals, but Randy Moss had just signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the Patriots. I couldn’t believe it.

“In my own contract discussions with the Pats, I recall Bill Belichick telling me they couldn’t give me the contract Moss signed. Being a young and greedy knucklehead, I chose to stay in Washington on a long-term deal, which ultimately had me making the same per-year salary as Moss. Over a few million, I could’ve changed my legacy by being part of that dynasty. That was on the table for me, and I wish I would’ve made the decision to take less money and play for Belichick.”

Hall ended up sticking with the Redskins through the 2017 season. The Redskins ultimately won 56 games between the 2009 and 2017 seasons, earning a pair of playoff appearances. The Patriots won 112 games and made four Super Bowls during that same span.

Let’s check out some more notes from around the AFC…

  • Earlier this offseason, cornerback Trae Waynes signed a four-year, $42MM deal with the Bengals, including a $15MM signing bonus. However, as SI.com’s Albert Breer details, the former first-rounder still hasn’t received any of that money, and this is an ongoing theme throughout the NFL. One agent told Breer that executives are wary of finalizing any deals over fears of a cancelled season, and organizations are “within their rights to leave deals undone as a result of not wanting to do off-campus physicals.”
  • Breer adds that Waynes is “pretty sensitive to how his concern over a $15 million payment might come off, understanding the job situation in our country right now.” Meanwhile, the Bengals have explained their side of the story. “The Bengals are very excited about adding Trae to the roster and are confident that he will be a good player here, but unfortunately issues relating to coronavirus have made contract execution matters harder than anyone wishes,” said Bengals vice president Troy Blackburn. “Hopefully agreements can be reached soon between the NFL and the NFLPA that allow the season to get underway, at which point these issues go away.”
  • Ed Bouchette of The Athletic can’t envision running back James Conner inking an extension with the Steelers. The writer notes that the 25-year-old has only had one good season, and he’s battled injuries throughout his career. Following a breakout 2018 campaign, Conner finished the 2019 season with an underwhelming 715 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns.

No Extension Talks Yet For Steelers’ James Conner

James Conner has one year to go on his contract but he has yet to begin extension talks with the Steelers, as Ed Bouchette of The Athletic writes. Meanwhile, the running back says he isn’t too worried.

[RELATED: Rooney, Tomlin Were Against Rule Change]

My goal is to win,” Conner said. “I have the opportunity to do that. The special team we got, pieces that were out last year coming back healthy. I’m not playing for a contract or playing not to get hurt. I’m playing to win, that’s what it’s about, to be part of Super Bowl No. 7 for the organization.”

The former third-round pick is set to earn just $825K in base salary in the final year of his rookie deal. The slotted four-year pact pays Conner just $3.24MM in total and he’s undoubtedly eager to secure a pay bump on a multi-year extension. The Pitt product has said that it would “be hard” to ever play for another team and it stands to reason that the Steelers will want to keep him as well.

However, there are a few complications. First and foremost, there’s the current climate, which has put deals on hold for players all around the league. Then, there’s the matter of Conner’s down year. In 2018, he was the Steelers’ breakout replacement for Le’Veon Bell – he ran for 973 yards, averaged 4.5 yards per carry, and tacked on 497 receiving yards for good measure. Last year was a different story – he was limited to just 464 yards on the ground and six games, thanks to knee and shoulder trouble.

The Steelers, meanwhile, have safeguarded their RB depth chart a bit by drafting Anthony McFarland Jr. in the fourth round. Still, Conner stands as the Steelers’ RB1 heading into 2020, the leader of a group that also includes Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

AFC North Rumors: Browns, Landry, Steelers

After undergoing hip surgery in February, Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry has pronounced himself “a little bit ahead of schedule,” according to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com. Landry said he should be ready to return to field action at some point in August. At the moment, obviously, it’s unclear when/if training camp will officially get underway, but Landry figures to be ready during the preseason. Fresh off a campaign in which he posted 83 receptions for 1,174 yards and six touchdowns, Landry had hoped to avoid surgery in favor of a rest-and-rehab schedule, but ultimately went under the knife.

Here’s more from the AFC North:

  • Ben Roethlisberger, who missed the majority of the 2019 season after suffering an elbow injury, had already resumed throwing in February, but this week, he started throwing to his teammates. In a video tweeted by Roethlisberger, the veteran quarterback is shown throwing to Steelers pass-catchers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ryan Switzer, and James Conner (and subsequently undergoing a haircut and shave). Now 38 years old, Roethlisberger had hoped to gain full medical clearance by the summer. He’s signed for two more years, with a whopping $41.25MM cap charge on the books for 2021.
  • Former Packers area scout Charles Walls has joined the Browns‘ front office, reports Rob Demosky of ESPN.com (Twitter link). Walls will receive a promotion in Cleveland and will hold the title of national scout, per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal (Twitter link). Walls, who had been with Green Bay since the 2013 season, had covered the Southeast region for the Packers.
  • In case you missed it, the Ravens are considering an out-of-state training camp location due to COVID-19 concerns.

James Conner: It’d Be Hard To Leave Steelers

Steelers running back James Conner is scheduled to be a free agent following the 2020 season. Still, he says it “would be hard” to play for another NFL team.

[RELATED: Mike Tomlin Stands As NFL’s Third Longest-Tenured Head Coach]

It would be hard, it would be hard to put another helmet on. Just because of everything and what this city means to me,” Conner told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. “The city I played my college ball in, the city I had my life saved in, became healthy. The city I got drafted to, and I want to be able to say the city I brought a championship to…It would be hard. I’m Pittsburgh through and through.”

Conner’s loyalty to the Steelers hasn’t wavered. However, his stock has. In 2018, he shined as the team’s new replacement for Le’Veon Bell, posting 973 rushing yards, a per carry average of 4.5 yards, and 497 receiving yards. However, he slumped last year along with the rest of the Steelers’ offense. Conner had just 464 yards on the ground and played in just six games.

This year, the Steelers expect the University of Pittsburgh product to come back strong and healthy. It’s not easy to rehab from knee and shoulder injuries, but no one is counting Conner out after he bounced back from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

This year, Conner will be supported by Benny Snell, fourth-round rookie Anthony McFarland Jr., and Jaylen Samuels. If he’s able to reprise his 2018 performance, he should be in line for a nice pay bump in 2021, and he’ll probably get that deal from the Steelers.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Steelers Notes: Harrison, Tomlin, Ebron

Notorious cheap-shot artist and Steelers icon James Harrison last set foot on the field in 2017, but he is back in the headlines today. In an interview on Barstool Sports’ “Going Deep” podcast, Harrison said that Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin handed him an envelope after Harrison laid a brutal hit on Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi in October 2010 (story via TMZ).

“And, I ain’t gonna lie to you, when that happened, right? [T]he G-est thing Mike Tomlin ever did, he handed me an envelope after that,” Harrison said. “I ain’t gonna say what, but he handed me an envelope after that.”

The clear implication, of course, is that the alleged envelope contained money, either as a “reward” for the hit or to help Harrison pay the ensuing $75K fine from the league. One way or another, it could spell trouble for Tomlin if the league chooses to investigate (though since the alleged incident took place prior to sanctions being levied in the Saints’ Bountygate scandal, that may not happen).

Team president Art Rooney II, of course, denies the allegation (via Mike Florio of PFT), and so does Harrison’s agent, Bill Parise (via Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review). After the public tied Harrison’s comments to Bountygate, Harrison himself took to social media to deny that Tomlin gave him a “bounty,” but he notably did not deny that the envelope helped offset his fine. Most likely, this will all be forgotten in short order, but it will be interesting to see if the NFL does decide to launch some sort of investigation.

Now for more from the Steel City:

  • New Steelers tight end Eric Ebron has passed his physical, as Ebron himself announced (via Twitter). An ankle injury wiped out his 2019 season almost completely, but he still managed to land a two-year, $12MM pact with Pittsburgh, thanks in large part to his Pro Bowl performance in 2018. He will join fellow tight end Vance McDonald as a seam-stretching target and red zone threat for Ben Roethlisberger.
  • After a promising 2018 campaign, Steelers RB James Conner was limited by injuries in 2019, and he averaged a full five fewer runs per game last season than he did the year before. But Tomlin prefers having a bell-cow in his backfield, and he hopes Conner can return to that role in 2020. “James is a featured guy and proven runner when healthy,” Tomlin said (via Rutter). “We’re excited about him getting back to health and displaying that in 2020.” Conner is entering a contract year, so a return to form as the Steelers’ RB1 could also land him a nice payday.
  • The Steelers may be in the market for a nose tackle after losing Javon Hargrave to the Eagles in free agency, as Mark Kaboly of The Athletic writes. While pure nose tackles are going the way of the dodo, Hargrave was so valuable because of his ability to generate pass rush from the interior while also serving as a traditional NT against power-running teams, but those players are tough to find on the open market. If the club makes a move to add a veteran via free agency or trade, Kaboly believes it will not happen until after training camp. Until then, Daniel McCullers and seventh-round rookie Carlos Davis will attempt to fill the void left by Hargrave.

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.