Prior to 2019, the Steelers backfield delivered an RB1 in five straight seasons with three different running backs leading the team in attempts over that period: Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams, and James Conner. Conner and Benny Snell split rushing duties nearly 50/50 last season, combining for 207 PPR fantasy points, good for RB18. The Steelers enter 2020 with PFF’s 9th ranked offensive line and see Ben Roethlisberger returning at QB, a notable improvement over last year’s duo of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, neither of which ranked in the top 30 of PFF’s 2019 QB rankings. Pittsburgh projects to be a strong fantasy situation for the running back position in 2020, the only question is who will end up leading the backfield.
James Conner is the safe bet to lead the team in touches again, as he did last season despite missing six full games and missing time in a handful of others due to injury. Conner, who turned 25 in May, is entering the final year of his contract and will certainly be out to prove he deserves a second contract as a feature back. While this may be true, a deep dive into the 2019 season as well as college production signals a deep dynasty sleeper is hiding in the Pittsburgh backfield. Former Kentucky Wildcat bell cow and 2019 4th round pick Benny Snell, who quietly posted the 40th highest rushing total by a 21-year-old running back in NFL history last year, boasts serious breakout potential and is currently sitting at RB76 per Dynastyleaguefootball.com ADP.
A quick look at Conner and Snell’s profiles, provided by playerprofiler.com, demonstrates how similar these two backs are athletically:
The backfield mates also compare closely based on college production. In three healthy seasons at Penn St., Conner rushed 660 times for 3,656 yards and 50 touchdowns, good for an average of 5.5 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Snell managed 737 attempts for 3,873 yards and 48 scores for an average of 5.3 yards per carry. Conner slightly edges Snell in receiving production with 29 receptions for 405 yards and 4 touchdowns to Snell’s 29/216/0. Conner did the vast majority of his receiving damage, however, in his age 21 college season (21 receptions, 302 yards, 4 touchdowns), while Snell was already on the Steelers by age 21.
Last year for the Steelers, Conner saw 54% of snaps while Snell saw 24%. Despite garnering 2.3 times as many snaps as Snell, Conner only won 1.8 times as many weighted opportunities (discounts carries and adds a premium to targets) and three less redzone opportunities. Snell also averaged 2.8 yards after contact per attempt, .5 yards more than James Conner's 2.3 yards after contact per attempt, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. In fact, Snell posted the 8th best yards after contact per attempt in the entire league last season. Snell especially shines when we apply defense specific factors to his performance versus Conner. Snell faced the highest percent of runs into stacked boxes, or boxes with eight or more defenders, in the league, running into them 49% of the time. Conner, on the other hand, faced a stacked box on just 28% of his runs. The fact that Snell was able to match Conner’s overall rushing production and efficiency last season despite less than half as many snaps, and nearly twice as many stacked fronts speaks to his ability to generate positive plays when afforded the opportunity. Metrics in this paragraph courtesy of playerprofiler.com, unless noted otherwise.
Ultimately, Conner and Snell are incredibly similar running backs, and both talented in their own right. Conner has an extensive history of missing playing time, however, dating back to college, while Snell played in all 39 Kentucky football games from 2016-2018, and returned after just three games in 2019 after requiring a minor knee procedure. Conner is three years older, and in a contract year, while Snell is under contract through the 2022 season. By this analysis, Conner and Snell are virtually identical talents, so why draft Conner at his current ADP of 68 overall when Benny Snell is available 162 picks later? Go buy Benny Snell now before it’s too late, and win yourself a championship!