With another 1,000-yard season under his belt to go along with 20 touchdowns this year, Pitt running back James Conner has decided to take his talents to the NFL a year early:
Forever Grateful. pic.twitter.com/B8wXA9ABZz— James Conner (@JamesConner_) December 10, 2016
Conner leaving early for the pros is hardly a surprise. There was a chance he would come back given some early projections hadn't been all that favorable and that the running back group is surprisingly strong this year. That second part could make it more difficult for him to be a high pick, particularly since running backs have become a bit devalued in the Draft with teams finding good ones in later rounds. Conner, however, previously said that other backs entering the Draft wouldn't influence his decision.
Conner is a bruising runner who has already taken his fair share of hits. He's also already 21 and will turn 22 next May before the upcoming season. And as Conner learned last season when he was knocked out for the year in the team's opener, suffering a major injury is always a possibility. For as many reasons as you can think of him to come back, there's probably two for him to leave.
Conner said as recently as last month that he was still unsure about his decision. But my guess is that that was more about not wanting to be a distraction and less about actually not knowing what he planned to do. After all, Conner still has more than a month before he technically had to declare early (the deadline isn't until January 16th). If it was really more of an uncertainty, my guess is that Conner would have waited to make the announcement until he could get a better handle on when he would be selected in the NFL Draft. The decision, given the timing, seems like it was a relatively easy one.
Keep in mind, too, that the decision to announce his intentions now is also a change from what he said only a few weeks ago when he said his decision would come after the postseason:
"...After the bowl game, I’m going to sit and just think and make the smartest choice.”
We've been through this all before. Players routinely change their minds on the Draft and Conner certainly has that right so there's no reason for anyone to have any beef with this at all. Personally, I'm surprised he's not waiting until he can get some more formal evaluations on potential landing spots in the Draft, but again, it's also entirely his decision and it is also difficult to gauge just how much more his stock could improve by returning for another season. And if he really needed to, he could change his mind (although I don't see that happening). In the end, coming back may do more harm than good if his numbers don't drastically improve and he's a year older.
If you look back at all the uncertainty around his career about a year ago to where things stand now, he's worked unbelievably hard. Regardless of where he ends up in the Draft, it's great to see that he'll get his shot to play on Sundays. He deserves that opportunity and then some.