NFL

NFL Betting: James Conner Won’t Reach His 2020 Props

When Le'Veon Bell sat out the entirety of the 2018 season, James Conner stepped up at running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers in a big way.

Conner totaled 1,470 scrimmage yards and 13 scores en route to his first Pro Bowl appearance in just his second season in the league.

In 2019, Conner's season was riddled with injuries and offensive inefficiencies, leading to a drastic drop in his production.

Oddsmakers have the 25-year-old bouncing back in 2020. FanDuel Sportsbook has Conner's over/unders at 1234.5 scrimmage yards and 9.5 for touchdowns.

Let's take a look at how to bet those props.

2018-2019 Production

Stepping in for Bell in 2018, Conner rode 270 touches to 1,470 total yards and 13 touchdowns. His 71 targets were good for the third-highest target share on the team.

Among running backs with at least 150 carries, Conner ranked 12th in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry and 10th in Rushing Success Rate (i.e., the percentage of carries that lead to positive NEP for a team’s offense). Conner held his own as a receiver as well. Among backs with at least 40 targets, he ranked 13th in Reception NEP per reception, 9th in Target NEP per target, and 13th in Target Success Rate.

With Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger elsewhere or out for the season in 2019, Conner -- and Pittsburgh's offense as a whole -- struggled with their efficiency. Of the 45 backs to get at least 100 totes last year, Conner ranked 43rd in Rushing NEP per carry and 26th in Rushing Success Rate.

Conner's scoring rate dropped a bit from 2018 to 2019 as well. After reaching the end zone on 4.81% of his touches in 2018, he scored on 4.66% in 2019.

However, Conner's struggles didn't carry over to the receiving department. Among runners with more than 30 targets, Conner ranked 8th in Reception NEP per reception, 4th in Target NEP per target, and 2nd in Reception Success Rate.

2020 Outlook

There are a number of reasons to be skeptical of Conner's chances of going over his projected totals.

In the fourth round of the 2020 draft, the Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland Jr. to compete in an already-crowded backfield. McFarland will join 2019 fourth-rounder Benny Snell Jr. and Jaylen Samuels to vie for touches behind Conner.

Having missed nine games over the last two seasons, a crowded backfield doesn't bode well for Conner's chances of duplicating the 270-touch total he received in 2018. And, unless his rushing efficiency jumps back to his 2018 levels, he'll need every bit of those touches to reach 1,235 yards (what he needs for the over).

All that said, there is some reason for optimism. In 2019, the Steelers ran just 938 plays -- that's an 86.6-touch difference than their average in the previous 12 seasons under head coach Mike Tomlin. Yes, they're a more defensive-oriented team now. Nevertheless, they should run more plays this season. More plays equal more potential touches for Conner.

However, an uptick in plays is far from a given to lead to an uptick in rushes. In order for Pittsburgh to see an uptick in plays, they'd need better production from the quarterback position. That's where the health of Big Ben comes in. It's worth noting that the Steelers had averaged 1.59 passes for every run in the seven seasons prior to 2019 -- compared to 1.37 last year. Thus, even if they run more plays, it won't necessarily lead to a large increase in rushes.

Could the Steelers become a more run-heavy team in order to preserve Ben's health? Sure, that's one possible scenario. But, at the same time, they could also use that same approach with Conner and try to preserve his health by limiting his usage.

All in all, given everything I've mentioned, I'd bet against Conner receiving the same workload he did in 2018 (20.8 touches per game).

Projection

numberFire's models project Conner for 1223.7 total yards and 8.1 scores -- hitting the under on both props.

I think our models have this one pegged right. The unders are the right play here.

For yardage, you can get the under at -112 -- that's a bet I really like. The under on touchdowns is a tad more costly at -118, but it's still a wager worth making.