James Conner will miss Week 14, so who will lead the Steelers backfield in his place?
As Le’Veon Bell took his stand in lieu of signing his franchise tender, the Pittsburgh Steelers found James Conner. The second-year man out of Pitt is fifth in the league in rushing (909 yards) and second in rushing scores (12), along with 52 receptions. He came out of last Sunday night’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers with what was originally called a lower leg contusion, but it was not considered a major injury.
On Tuesday things changed, as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters Conner will miss Sunday’s game against the Oakland Raiders with an ankle injury.
Holding Conner out seems like a precaution, ahead of facing the 2-10 Raiders. But the promotion of Trey Edmunds from the practice squad just prior to the news on Conner pointed to some concern about his status, and that has come to be.
The mere nature of ankle injuries brings a multi-game absence into play for Conner. So who is his backup?
Jaylen Samuels was a fifth-round pick in April out of N.C. State, where he was a multi-purpose weapon as a tight end, running back and wide receiver. He has 12 carries and seven catches behind Conner so far this season, with a receiving touchdown in both games Conner has left early due to injury.
Stevan Ridley has 18 carries in seven games in uniform for the Steelers this year. His last relevant season came in 2013 with the New England Patriots when he had seven touchdowns, and he had 12 rushing scores for New England in 2012.
Conner’s fantasy owners will now be without him in the first week of the playoffs, and there’s no way to replace the current RB5 on the season in ESPN PPR leagues. The Raiders are 31st in the league against the run, and they have allowed the 12th-most fantasy points to running backs (ESPN PPR scoring). Oakland has allowed over 100 yards or a touchdown to a running back in six straight games.
Tomlin hinted at a committee approach to replace Conner, but Samuels is a more versatile player and should lead said potential committee. Ridley would be in line for goal line work, but Pittsburgh’s run-pass ratio over their last three games with Conner in the lineup (148 pass attempts for Ben Roethlisberger, 59 rush attempts) clearly favors Samuels.
Add in tight end eligibility in Yahoo! leagues (as well as some other league hosts), and Samuels now becomes the top waiver wire add at running back this week and possibly among all positions for Week 14. He’s owned in 12% percent of Yahoo! leagues and 3.4 percent of ESPN leagues right now, but don’t expect that wide availability to last long as the week goes on.
If you’re a playoff-bound Conner owner, Samuels would have been a savvy waiver wire add at some point over the last couple weeks as the handcuff. A relative lack of competition as the fantasy playoffs start provides a convenient mulligan, and if Conner’s injury lingers beyond this week Samuels is suddenly a playoff difference maker for whoever adds him.