Tue Jun 2 7:02pm ET
By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
In this Dec. 15, 2019, file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) plays during the second half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills in Pittsburgh. Conner stressed he's not concerned about his future as he enters the final year of his contract. The team declined to offer him an extension following three seasons in which he has struggled to stay healthy. "That's the game," Conner said.(AP Photo/Don Wright, File)
PITTSBURGH (AP) James Conner didn't treat the quarantine caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as an obstacle, but an opportunity.
While the shutdown forced the Pittsburgh Steelers running back to cancel a couple of planned vacations, it also gave him time - a lot of time - to filter out the noise heading into the most important season of his career.
''(It) helped me get away from all distractions,'' Conner said Tuesday. ''I'm not saying they're all distractions, but not going out, to stay home and cook at home, and not be able to maybe go out on weekends. It forces people to stay home, so with that time at home I was just trying to get better.''
A process that included an aggressive workout plan designed to help Conner avoid the injuries that have dogged him since the Steelers took him in the third round of the 2017 draft.
While the 25-year-old has shown flashes at times and reached the Pro Bowl in 2018 thanks to an electric first half, he's missed 10 games over the past two seasons and has topped 100 total yards just three times in his past 15 starts.
While general manager Kevin Colbert has repeatedly stressed the organization still believes in Conner, the club also declined to approach him with a new deal. Conner insists he didn't take the decision personally.
''That's the game,'' he said. ''I want to do a lot more so I can give a lot more to this organization. I trust the Lord's timing. I'm not concerned about the extension. I know I've got another year left on my contract. I'll give it all I got for one more year and see how it plays out. ... I'm just going to ball out.''
Conner, who won a battle with lymphoma during his college days at Pittsburgh, isn't concerned about his health being at risk whenever he and his teammates get back to work in person. He called himself ''100%'' ready to play under whatever safety guidelines are enacted to help combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.
''We're going to play it safe, of course,'' Conner said. ''I'm not going to ignore it, but as far as me being scared or taking extra precautions because of my health history. That was four years ago. My body's healed. When we follow the protocols and health guidelines, I'll be just fine.''
Or, he hopes, better than that. He's developed a rigorous workout regiment that he's documented heavily on social media.
He raised eyebrows last week when he posted a series of pictures that included a look at his hulking back. The 6-foot-1, 233-pounder joked it was ''just the angle'' and that ''lots of people look like that.''
Not exactly. Conner arrived in the NFL off a record-setting career at Pitt, where he developed a reputation as a bruising runner who would just as soon run over a defender as he would run by one.
He's become leaner and more versatile with the Steelers. He's caught 89 passes over the past two years and has proven to be valuable in pass protection.
While the Steelers have professed faith in him, they've also hedged their bets. They took a running back in the draft for the fourth straight year when they selected Anthony McFarland out of Maryland in the fourth round.
He joins a group that includes Conner, Benny Snell, Trey Edmunds and Jaylen Samuels. That's a lot of bodies and only one football at their disposal.
''If I'm the guy, or however this year works, the goal is to win,'' Conner said. ''We've got to be ready at all times. You can't warm-up to it. That's been our slogan, `We can't warm-up to it.' So I'm not paying attention to how many carries I need.''
Conner believes the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from elbow surgery puts the Steelers back into the mix in the AFC. Pittsburgh still found a way to finish 8-8 last season with Roethlisberger playing all of six quarters.
Conner was effective in spurts but had just 18 touches over the final eight games because of a right shoulder injury sustained in the final seconds of a win over Miami in which he rolled up 145 yards rushing.
''There's nothing I can do to get last year back,'' Conner said. ''I'm working every day hard as possible to be in the best shape ever, to be the best football player I can be. I'm going to give it everything I have. That's just where my mindset is. I'm not trying to make it bigger than what it is. All it is is perform. I do that when I'm on the field.''
July 5th: Tightend Preview
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas is the top-ranked wideout on Sports Illustrated's Big Board for the upcoming campaign. Thomas finished 2019 miles ahead of the No. 2 receiver in all formats. While contributor Bill Enright doesn't foresee another record-breaking season for the 27-year-old, he expects him to lead the league once again in many statistical categories. Thomas will hopefully be catching passes from Drew Brees for an entire 16-game stretch in 2020, with the future hall of fame signal-caller also having the luxury of playing behind one of the most efficient offensive lines in the league.
New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley could be the league's leading rusher this season, according to Bleacher Report's Maurice Moton. Barkley is predicted to run for nearly 1,500 yards and could benefit immensely from the arrival of former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. The 23-year-old struggled in 2019 after dealing with a high-ankle sprain that cost him three games. He still managed to exceed 1,000 yards on the ground but took a step back in scoring production. If Barkley can remain healthy in 2020 and the offensive line holds up, the former Nittany Lion could be in store for his best campaign to date. Though Christian McCaffrey is the consensus No. 1 overall back in fantasy rankings, the case could be made for Barkley to be selected ahead of him.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and the team have no scheduled talks ahead of Wednesday's deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign contract extensions. Things can change with a quick phone call, but there has not been urgency to get a deal done. It has been reported the Cowboys offered Prescott a five-year deal, but Prescott's side would prefer a four-year deal with options. Prescott is scheduled to make $31.4 million under the tag this season, but may look elsewhere if he is allowed to test the market next winter. Prescott would be just the third quarterback to play a season under the franchise tag and the previous two- Drew Brees and Kirk Cousins- signed with different teams after their seasons. Prescott's dynasty value would be less certain without a guarantee of playing in Dallas's high-octane offense.
New York Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams is expected to play the 2020 season under the franchise tag. According to Ian Rapoport, the two sides are on the same page that Williams will play under the tag ahead of Wednesday's deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign extensions. The hope is he excels in a new system and becomes a big part of New York's future after they traded for the former first-rounder in the middle of last season. Williams is an excellent run defender, but doesn't provide much IDP value as he has just 17.5 career sacks since entering the league in 2015.
Free-agent RB Devonta Freeman (Falcons) was informed that his agent, Kristin Campbell, has terminated their relationship Sunday, July 12.
Fantasy Spin: Freeman still looks to be holding out for more money than his market value is dictating at the moment. He might have to wait for an injury to sign, but he'll be a potential RB3 in fantasy when he does.
Updating previous reports, Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott and the team are reportedly 'not close' to agreeing to a contract extension as of Sunday, July 12, according to Calvin Watkins of the Dallas Morning News via a source. The two sides have until July 15 to reach a long-term agreement or Prescott will be forced to play the 2020 season under the $31.4 million franchise tag he signed recently.
San Francisco 49ers CB Richard Sherman has allowed a completion rate of 47 percent to receivers in his coverage since 2010 - the best mark in the NFL over that span per Pro Football Focus.
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was recently ranked as the 11th best at his position by an anonymous NFL offensive coach. The coach would go on to state that the 24-year-old "doesn't look as strong anymore. Feels like he's about 60 to 70 percent of what he was." Elliott was quick to dismiss these comments, but some fantasy managers may pay attention to these remarks, especially if they are drafting after the selections of Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley. The fifth-year back did have one of the most productive years as a professional in 2019, finishing with 1,357 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns off of 301 attempts. He also added 54 catches for 420 yards and two additional scores. While those numbers don't indicate a downward trend, the former Buckeye will be without the guidance of former head coach Jason Garrett in 2020, who is now the offensive coordinator for the New York Giants.
San Francisco 49ers CB Jamar Taylor has a chance to make the final roster because he has experience at outside cornerback as well as slot cornerback and plays on special teams, in the opinion of NinersWire's Kyle Madson.
Free-agent DEs Jadeveon Clowney (Seahawks), Everson Griffen (Vikings) and DE Markus Golden (Giants) likely will not receive interest from the New York Jets because the team wants to move their unspent salary cap space to next season, in the opinion of the New York Post's Brian Costello.
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey has plenty of hype entering the 2020 campaign and should continue to be the No. 1 fantasy selection in the majority of fantasy drafts heading into September. However, according to a poll conducted by ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, more than 50 percent of league executives view Saquon Barkley as the top back in the league. As claimed by one anonymous AFC executive, McCaffrey is "not as sturdy as Saquon. Not the same speed-and-power combo." While this declaration may not hinder fantasy managers from taking McCaffrey first overall in drafts, it could give many something to think about.
New England Patriots RB Sony Michel (foot) is no longer wearing a walking boot on his surgically repaired foot.
Fantasy Spin: Michel will be ready for training camp and should receive most of the carries this season but will have to share snaps with several other backs. He should be considered at least a No. 3 running back in fantasy leagues.
Free-agent WR Terrelle Pryor (Jaguars) said he is looking to play in 2020 and has talked with five teams this offseason. He said he would like to play for the New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers.
It remains unknown if Cincinnati Bengals WR A.J. Green will sign his franchise tag or agree to a long-term deal before the NFL deadline for contract extensions Wednesday, July 15, at 4 p.m. ET, according to multiple sources.
The Dallas Cowboys remain optimistic that QB Dak Prescott will accept their best contract extension offer before the NFL deadline Wednesday, July 15, at 4 p.m. ET. However, multiple league sources believe that no long-term deal will be completed by the deadline because he has already signed his franchise tag tender.
Jacksonville Jaguars WR Laviska Shenault Jr. will compete with veteran WR Chris Conley during training camp to be the team's No. 2 receiver behind WR DJ Chark.
Fantasy Spin: Shenault is fully recovered from core muscle surgery and is expected to play an integral role in the Jacksonville offense this season. He has a great deal of upside and is worthy of consideration as a WR5 option in this year's fantasy drafts.
Free-agent DE Jadeveon Clowney (Seahawks) could show interest in the Philadelphia Eagles because he wants to join a winning team, according to 710 ESPN's John Clayton.
Jacksonville Jaguars DE Rodney Gunter and DE Dawuane Smoot could receive some snaps at defensive tackle this upcoming season.
Free-agent WR Antonio Brown (Patriots) reached a settlement with the New England Patriots regarding the compensation grievance Brown filed against the team.
Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry isn't expecting a long-term contract extension before the deadline of Wednesday, July 15, so he expects to play the 2020 season under the $10.6 million franchise tag. The 25-year-old doesn't seem to be too worried about it, though, and he's focused on the 2020 season. He views this year as a prove-it deal because he hasn't played a full season in his four-year career due to injuries. Henry spent May and June working out with rookie quarterback Justin Herbert and recently had throwing sessions with Tyrod Taylor. Henry had career highs with 55 catches and 652 receiving yards in 2019. Among tight ends, Henry has the best passer rating when targeted at 132.3 since 2016. He's surely a top-10 fantasy tight end, but injuries and a downgrade at QB limit his overall ceiling.