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PFF scouting report: James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh

during the second half of the Armed Forces Bowl NCAA college football game, Friday, Jan. 2, 2015, in Fort Worth. Texas. Houston won 35-34. (AP Photo/Sharon Ellman)

Name: James Conner

School: Pittsburgh

Position fit: Running back

Stats to know: Conner’s 88 broken tackles as a runner in 2014 are the second-most in a single season out of the past three years, behind only Dalvin Cook’s 92 in 2016.

What he does best:

  • Scheme-diverse. Has experience and success in zone, gap, power schemes.
  • Good vision, has a knack for finding his way through traffic and finding cutback lanes at the second level.
  • Shows great balance through contact, tough to bring down and will drag defenders to gain extra yardage.
  • Has an element of finesse to his game even with his big frame, can be much more than just a typical big, power back.
  • Utilized in the passing game more in 2016. Not going to be a big receiving threat, but has showed he’s at least capable and has good hands.

Biggest concerns:

  • While it’s not his game, lack of speed is somewhat of a concern. Will he leave some yards on the field when he is able to break off bigger runs?
  • Should be better in pass protection than he is given his size.
  • His impressive 2014 season came behind a Pittsburgh offensive line that was the best run-blocking line in the nation.
  • Will he get back to his 2014 form?

Bottom line: Conner has dealt with more adversity over the past year and a half than most college football players. After having one of the most productive running back performances in the nation in 2014, his follow-up season was derailed by a torn MCL in the season opener, and a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis later in the season before he could return to the field. He was fortunate to be declared cancer-free in 2016 and was able to reclaim his starting job last season.

Understandably, he didn’t quite look like the same running back as before. However, he improved as the season progressed, and his burst, change of direction, and strength through contact were all noticeably better by the end of the year. He still is very difficult to bring down and will consistently gain yardage through final contact. His balance on contact is impressive and allows him to shed tacklers with ease. Even if he never gets back to his 2014 form, he can make an impact as a short-yardage back in the NFL. However, Conner could be one of the steals of the draft and earn a significant workload at the next level if another year removed from the health issues and having a full offseason of workouts help him fully get back to his prior level of play.

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