Name: James Conner School: Pittsburgh
Height: 6'2 Weight: 240 lbs
Class: Junior Accolades: ACC Player of the Year (2014), led ACC in touchdowns
Notable injuries: Sprained MCL (expected to miss entire 2015 season)
Biggest strengths: Power, yards after contact, pass blocking, vision, balance
Biggest weaknesses: Speed to the edge, high pad level runner
Biggest questions: Can he catch the ball consistently? Is he too tall a runner for the NFL?
You remember 'Mortal Kombat?' A fighting video game back in the mid 1990s? You'd be beating up on your opponent to the point where you'd win the fight and the announcer would shout 'finish him!' then you'd launch into a sequence of button mashing on your controller in hopes of landing an array of punches and kicks to embarrass the person you're playing with. I know, it's definitely a guilty pleasure kind of video game.
But finishing is an important part of playing running back at the NFL level too, and Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner finishes runs with a physicality that could make Shang Tsung say 'flawless victory.' Come on, let me have my fun with this.
What he's done up until this point
While an unfortunate injury derailed what was a promising junior season in the Panthers 2015 season opener, Conner compiled plenty of highlights from a season ago that we'll look at and analyze how his game might translate to the NFL level.
Conner stands at an above average height for an RB at 6-foot-2 and weighs in at a lean 240 lbs. He shows decent burst when getting up field and has the agility to cut off blocks without losing speed.
He shows very good mental processing to diagnose his blocks before decisively hitting the hole. Though he lacks a third gear, his straight-line speed is adequate to get to the edge on a majority of college defenses. Once he's in the open field, he prefers to take contact from defenders before using his strength and churning feet to plow ahead for positive yards. Though he's a good one-cut runner, his above-average size makes it hard for him to juke defenders with his upper and lower body.
But it's in his strength and balance you'll see Conner succeed most. One defender is almost never good enough to knock Conner off his frame. Often times, you'll see him carry one, two and sometimes even three defenders on his shoulders while keeping his feet moving downfield. He's a grittier runner after contact than he is before it, often preferring to let the defender hit him first and slow him up rather than maintaining his speed and plowing through him. But because Conner is so big, he's able to make up for his lost momentum with his size and balance, often carrying defenders simply by maintaining his equilibrium.
This strength is exemplified in the clip below. it's an inside run play against UNC back from 2014. The fullback misses a block which allows two defenders to funnel into the gap and meet Conner up the middle. Conner stiff arms one to slow his momentum, but he's able to use his strength to turn away from the defenders. Notice how his feet keep moving after the play which allows him to gain extra yards and also slip past a few more defenders before he falls down. While this is a good example of toughness, there are a few concerns with Conner's style of running and how it will translate to the NFL.
For one, Conner gets hit high which shows he doesn't run with a low enough pad level to leverage defenders. Being able to drive defenders back is what creates positive yardage, and Conner doesn't show that here.
Conner also drops his head after spinning out of contact which causes him to lose his balance and fall down. Had he kept his head up, he might've been able to maintain his balance and stay on his feet.
Also, the three players converging on him might have had something to do with his desire to get down and turn away, but this is something you'll see a lot with Conner's runs that causes some concern. Conner prefers to initiate contact and then spin out of it before getting extra yards rather than using his size to push a defender back. He can get away with it in college and still churn out positive yards because his size and strength are above average at the NCAA level, but you have to worry about him leaving himself vulnerable to hits from bigger, faster NFL defenders. The fact that Conner's tall for a running back only exacerbates those fears, as his pad level might be too high and leave himself vulnerable to big hits. Speaking of height, tall running backs are at a bit of a disadvantage in the pros. Very few running backs over 6-foot-2 have had productive NFL careers. To see more information on how height correlates with running back success, check out this piece by Jonathan Bales on Rotoworld.com.
Below you'll see another example of Conner running with a high pad level.
Again, you'll notice right at the last minute he stands upright which stops his forward momentum. He tries to spin out again before the ref blows the whistle after his forward progress is stopped.
But even though his height might put him at a disadvantage int he NFL, Conner's desire to finish runs is very impressive. He's not a punishing runner, but he doesn't go down with just one or two arm tackles and chooses to be the aggressor on a vast majority of his rushing attempts. His second effort after contact stands out and will help him score touchdowns around the goal line and gain tough yardage inside on crucial 3rd/4th and short plays at the NFL level.
Another positive trait Conner has is the ability to process information quickly. He diagnoses his blocks well and runs to the correct lane more often than not. His burst is good, not great. But where he lacks in straight-line speed he makes up for with quickness. For those who don't understand the difference between quickness and speed, quickness is measured in an athlete's ability to react to external stimuli on the field, so think of it like when you're playing 'Whack a mole' and when one pops up you have to make the split second decision on how to attack it, then hope your hand-eye coordination cooperates and you lay a hammer on some poor, unsuspecting rodent.
Here we see Conner's mental quickness on display during a run against Houston, which ranked in the Top 20 in total defense last season. Watch how Conner reacts to the Houston defensive tackle getting penetration in the backfield. Conner plants his foot, changes direction and uses his burst through an opening in the right side to score. Good instincts are a trait that's hard to teach.
One of the more impressive traits Conner possesses is a willingness to pass block. He also displays good technique by keeping a strong base and using his size to deliver a strong punch.
Can he catch?
Connor hasn't been asked to do much receiving at Pittsburgh and we don't know if he can consistently catch or not due to lack of examples of him doing such.
Conner has the instincts, size and good enough speed to be an adequate inside runner in the NFL. He could be an effective short yardage back but his height and lack of straight-line speed will keep him from being an elite runner.