James Conner is set to complete his impressive collegiate career when the Pittsburgh Panthers face the Northwestern Wildcats in the Pinstripe Bowl on December 28th.
Conner officially announced his plans to turn pro last week, joining the talented 2017 RB draft class.
Armed with an insanely productive 2014 season and a solid 2016 season after missing all of 2015 after being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, how high can James Conner rise?
2014, A Banner Year
According to College Football Reference, only 10 RBs have rushed for 1,700 yards and 25 touchdowns in a single season since 2000. James Conner did it as a 19-year old sophomore.
Conner’s 2014 campaign exhibited both tremendous single-game upside as well as impressive week-to-week consistency. He tallied 3 200-yard games and two 4-TD games, while failing to reach 80 yards rushing just twice. Conner’s five 3+ TD games in 2014 are the third-most by any player in a single season since 2000.
Evolution In 2016
Less than a year after his initial cancer diagnoses, Conner returned to football in 2016. Although his overall counting stats pale in comparison to his enormous 2014 output, Conner evolved as a pass-catcher this season, more than doubling his catch totals from the previous two seasons in 2016 alone.
With 4 receiving touchdowns on just 20 receptions, averaging 15 yards per catch, not only was Conner an outlet receiver for Panther’s quarterback Nathan Peterman, he also served as one of the most explosive pass-catchers on the team. For comparison, speedy WR Quadree Henderson averaged 10.5 yards per catch with just one TD.
In 2014, Conner scored a rushing TD on 8.7 percent of his carries compared to 7.7 percent in 2016. However, when factoring in Conner’s emergence as a receiver, his overall TD percentage actually increased – 8.6 percent in 2014, 8.8 percent in 2016.
Drawing from previous work done by Matthew Freedman and others here at Rotoviz, we can examine just how dominate of a rusher Conner was in his final two seasons.
Non-QB Dominator Rating (nQBDR) shows the percentage of a team’s rushing yardage accounted for by a player, minus yardage gained by QBs. Freedman references an 80 percent threshold as most predictive, but also alludes to larger RB’s being less tied to high nQBDR to predict future success.
Even in Conner’s best season, he managed a 0.63 nQBDR, and so far in 2016, he’s posted a 0.42 mark. The decrease in workload can in some ways be explained by former offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s scheme which featured a variety of ball-carriers highlighted by numerous jet-sweep motion looks and handoffs to WRs.
And while because of his size — 6 foot 2, 235 pounds — Conner’s relatively low nQBDR isn’t a death knell to his NFL prospects, but is still worth mentioning.
According to CBS Sports, James Conner is the 14th ranked RB in the 2017 class, projected as a Round 4 or 5 draft pick.
Two years removed from his best statistical season it’s understandable that evaluators may be hesitant to invest a large amount of draft capital on Conner. However, his development as a pass-catcher in 2016 combined with stellar yardage production and typically strong TD capability against ACC competition should buoy Conner’s chances at being drafted.
As an large RB by NFL standards, we probably shouldn’t expect amazing athletic measurables in pre-draft workouts, but if Conner shows a reasonable level of athleticism, we could see his draft stock rise.
Connor’s strength in character has been proven by his courageous return to football. He’s also one of 23 players since 2000 to rush for 50 or more TDs over a college career according to College Football Reference. He could end up as a quality NFL RB at a fraction of the cost of other high-end 2017 RB prospects.