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James Conner still unsure about NFL future

The Pitt running back says he’s not yet made up his mind about leaving school early for the pros

NCAA Football: Duke at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt’s football season is almost over and that means it will be time for some players to make decisions about declaring early for the NFL Draft. No player’s decision on the team will be studied as closely as that of running back James Conner.

For the record, Conner isn’t ready to make that decision yet.

With a monster 2014 season in the ACC, Conner has already proven he can dominate the college game. His numbers took a bit of a hit this season, but Conner has again proved he’s more than capable. He will likely reach the 1,000-yard mark (currently, he has 945 yards) and has scored 17 total touchdowns. Conner has also added a new dynamic to his game as a receiver with 18 catches for 254 yards. Those 18 grabs are twice as many as he’s had the rest of his time at Pitt.

On the surface, Conner looks like an easy candidate to jump to the NFL. And my (uneducated) guess is that if he’s projected to go anywhere in the first half of the Draft, he will go. But therein lies the problem. Conner is projected to be a later-round pick right now making his immediate future less certain.

Conner, of course, could still go, even if that holds true. After all, he’s cleared so many hurdles already with defeating cancer, playing effectively in limited time on defense, and returning from an MCL injury. Plus, running backs have a limited shelf life in the NFL and the longer he plays in college, the shorter, in theory, his pro career would be.

Reasons to return are there, however. As a late-round pick, it could be harder for him to make a roster. Plus, the running back corps for this next draft is expected to be very strong. Perhaps he moves up the list a bit with another strong performance and some of his main competition out of the way.

Conner, too, has said he’d like to have his jersey retired at Pitt. He already might have that happen, but another strong year would help that cause.

Finally, consider that Conner is a star in college. There are no such guarantees in the pros. Suppose, for example, that he jumps to the pros early and flames out quickly. It’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t regret staying in school for another year and just enjoying playing at a high level. While the NFL will still be there in another season, there’s no going back to college once you leave.

In the neutral area, I put the team aspect. The allure of helping Pitt to win a Division and reach an ACC title game is there, of course. But while the team has a lot back next year, they’re also going to be breaking in some new offensive linemen and also a new quarterback. Not a complete deal-breaker when trying to determine Pitt’s chances at winning the Division, but certainly not ideal.

I was pretty convinced that Conner would leave early but given some of the draft projections, I’m less certain now. But we won’t have to wait too much longer to hear his decision.

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