Former Pitt running back James Conner took the field with the Pittsburgh Steelers for organized team activities on Tuesday. It was his first time back since an MCL injury ended his rookie season in December, and notably missing from the team’s OTAs was starter Le’Veon Bell.
Bell was the only member of the team who failed to show up for the first day of the voluntary workouts, and this marks his second year in a row sitting them out. Once again, Bell is objecting to the Steelers’ decision to franchise tag him over the offseason. That led to a prolonged absence in 2017 that saw him miss training camp. This time, his holdout could extend into the regular season.
Of course, Bell’s time away from the team will free up some reps for those behind him on the depth chart, including Conner. That fact wasn’t overlooked by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who brought up Conner after he was asked about Bell’s backups on Tuesday.
Ben: "It was fun today. It’s fun to get back out here. To be around the guys, to laugh, smile and throw the football around is always fun." pic.twitter.com/wxb68BhbZV— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) May 22, 2018
”This is a big time for James, with some of the injuries that he had last year and learning last year,” said Roethlisberger, according to the team. “I think this will be really good for him to get as many reps as possible so we can all see what he can do, and that he can see what he can do, too.”
As Roethlisberger alluded to, questions still linger about Conner’s recovery from injury, but the running back sounded unhindered by his last ailment when asked about his progress.
”I want all the reps possible before it really counts,” said Conner, per Kevin Gorman of the Tribune-Review. “Until we strap up Game 1, I want to get as many reps as possible so I can be as comfortable as possible for whenever my number is called during the season.”
Gorman also noted that Conner described himself as “100 percent” healthy and prepared to take on Bell’s reps if given the opportunity.
Although much of this sounds familiar, given Bell’s holdout last season and the initial excitement surrounding Conner, the former Pitt standout is better positioned to take advantage of the situation this season, as he was sidelined with a hamstring injury during last season’s OTAs. He also suffered an AC joint sprain last August, forcing him to sit out part of training camp.
With that said, Conner was able to recover and rise to the occasion when called upon, as he ran for over 100 yards in preseason action against the Atlanta Falcons just weeks after his shoulder injury. However, beyond that, Conner saw little action, as Bell ultimately returned before the start of the regular season and resumed his starting duties.
Time will tell if the same scenario plays out in 2018, but for his part, Conner is more focused on the task at hand than a potential promotion roughly four months down the road.
”Right now, I’m just focused on getting better myself and taking it one day at a time,” Conner said. “It’s OTA Day 1. The season will be here soon, but it’s still a long way away. So just take it one day at a time. I’m going to go in there, study and watch the film and come out for Day 2 of OTAs.”