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
The Cleveland Browns and edge rusher Olivier Vernon have agreed to a restructured deal for the 2020 season. Vernon was originally owed $15.25 million non-guaranteed and will now bring home $11 million guaranteed for this upcoming season, with a $3.75 base salary and a $7 million signing bonus. The team and the pass-rusher were originally expected to part ways earlier in the offseason but he will stick around to bookend star defender Myles Garrett at least for another year.
Denver Broncos running back Melvin Gordon III thinks Denver's backfield in 2020 will be explosive with himself and Phillip Lindsay. Gordon realizes that both he and Lindsay will be fighting to be the No. 1 back, regardless of the balance in the play-calling. "I hope it's electric, man, just cause it's crazy that his numbers [are what they are]; I just had a season with Austin Ekeler phenomenal player. Their game is about the same. And I think Lindsay is a great, phenomenal back," Gordon said. The former Bolts back acknowledged that the two will be competing for top-dog duties, but the Broncos didn't sign Gordon in free agency for him to be the No. 2. The two-time Pro Bowler should see plenty of work and is an RB2 with upside in an offense more suited to his strengths.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson ended last year as one of the league's most dominant players. He finished with 3,127 passing yards and 36 touchdowns (six interceptions) while maintaining an exceptional 66.1 completion percentage. He also added 1,206 yards and seven additional scores on the ground and finished second with 867 rushing yards before contact. Though it is reasonable to think that the 23-year-old will regress this season, analyst Marcellus Wiley believes the opposite. While conversing on Fox Sports "Speak for Yourself," the former defensive end stated that he feels the young signal-caller will be "greater than great" in 2020, which is a scary declaration considering his statistical output through 15 games last season. He also indicated that a second consecutive MVP award is on the horizon. Whether fantasy managers agree or not, they should expect Jackson to be the first or second quarterback off the draft boards for the upcoming campaign.
The San Francisco 49ers have signed journeyman cornerback Jamar Taylor and waived cornerback Teez Tabor in a deep roster move on Monday. Taylor has bounced around the league for seven years, and he's likely to serve as nothing more than some depth at DB on the off chance that the team needs it. With COVID-19 cutting a swath through rosters this season though, depth players may find themselves in starring roles if push comes to shove. Hopefully, Taylor won't have to be leaned on very hard.
The Kansas City Chiefs and quarterback Patrick Mahomes agreed to a 10-year contract extension on Monday, according to a league source. The deal that ties Mahomes to Kansas City through the 2031 season will be the richest contract in NFL history. Last year's Super Bowl MVP had two years remaining on his contract, so it's essentially a 12-year contract in total. Mahomes' extension is worth over $400 million in total, and sources think it will be tied to a percentage of the salary cap for each season. Cha ching. Mahomes cashes in after winning MVP in 2018 with 50 regular season touchdowns and leading the Chiefs to a Super Bowl title last season. His dual-threat ability makes him extremely dangerous on the football field in KC's explosive offense. Mahomes and Lamar Jackson are the top two fantasy signal-callers in 2020.
Detroit Lions WR Kenny Golladay recorded 17 receptions of at least 25 yards during the 2019 season.
Fantasy Spin: Golladay was successful last season even though he had to play with several quarterbacks. He has a chance to improve on his stats with a full season with Matthew Stafford. He should be at least a No. 2 receiver in all fantasy leagues and will be a weekly starting option.
Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes agreed to terms on a 10-year contract extension with the Chiefs Monday, July 6, that will run through the 2031 season, according to sources. Financial terms were not disclosed, but the contract with be the richest contract in NFL history.
Fantasy Spin: Mahomes is coming off his first championship and is only 24 years old, so the Chiefs locked him up for most of the rest of his career. He is one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL and is a must-start in all fantasy leagues.
San Francisco 49ers CB Teez Tabor (undisclosed) was waived Monday, July 6, with a Non-Football Injury designation.
Free-agent CB Jamar Taylor (Falcons) signed a one-year contract with the San Francisco 49ers Monday, July 6. Financial terms were not disclosed.
Adam Schefter is reporting the Chiefs and QB Patrick Mahomes have reached an agreement on a 10-year contract extension that ties him to Kansas City through the 2031 season.
New York Jets head coach Adam Gase was looking to trade safety Marcus Maye prior to the start of last season, and general manager Joe Douglas has been fielding offers for him for almost a year. Maye is in the final year of his rookie deal and isn't believed to be in the team's long-term plans, especially since the Jets would prefer to extend All-Pro safety Jamal Adams instead. New York also selected safety Ashtyn Davis in the third round this year. The 27-year-old had 65 combined tackles and an interception over a full season in 2019, but he has only four interceptions and half a sack in his three seasons in the NFL. You can ignore Maye in IDP leagues.
Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku demanded a trade from the team several days ago but the team may not be so quick to accommodate him. ESPN's Josina Anderson tweeted on Monday that she believes that Njoku is still a big part of the Browns' plans going forward. Anderson went on to state that the Chicago Bears have been monitoring the situation, signaling that they may be a potential trade partner if Njoku is moved. The Browns signed Austin Hooper earlier in the offseason, prompting Njoku to want out of town.
Cleveland Browns TE David Njoku remains a big part of the Browns' offense, but a source said that Njoku has wanted out.
Fantasy Spin: Njoku is coming off of a lost season, and now he has Austin Hooper in town fresh off of a career year. So Njoku is blocked to a degree, but he might be a lottery ticket TE2 late in drafts.
San Francisco 49ers George Kittle remains without a new contract. While some reports suggest that the 26-year-old could land a deal that would pay him around $17 million per year, Matt Barrows from the Athletic was the latest to chime in, with the reporter hinting that Kittle would instead receive $13 million per year. The 2017 fifth-round pick has been one of the most consistent producers for the team over the years and finished the 2019 regular season with 85 receptions for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns. Fantasy managers should prepare for him to be the first or second tight end selected in fantasy drafts for 2020.
Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs could be in line for a breakout year, a sentiment that was echoed by ESPN's Mike Clay, who predicted the sophomore back to total 1,400 yards from scrimmage this season. The 22-year-old finished 2019 with 1,150 yards and seven touchdowns but was hindered by a shoulder issue that cost him three games while impacting him in others. With the Raiders having some potent weapons on the receiving end, things may open up more for Jacobs in 2020. Look for him to fly off the draft boards within the first round the majority of fantasy drafts for the upcoming campaign.
New York Giants DE Leonard Williams is seeking $18-$20 million in a long-term extension. The Giants are unwilling to approach that price tag.
Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon could lead the league in rushing this season, according to MSN's Matt Johnson. Johnson stated that with the team's enhanced offensive line and the arrival of rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, he wouldn't be surprised if the 23-year-old accumulated nearly 1,400 yards on the ground this year. Mixon finished last season with 1,137 yards and five touchdowns off of a career-high 278 attempts. He also pulled in 35 catches for three additional scores and ranked seventh in rushing yards after contact. Fantasy managers will want to plan accordingly as he should be one of the first backs off the boards in fantasy drafts for the 2020 campaign.
New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley could be in line for his best season yet under new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. According to NFL Network's Kimberly Jones, the team "may run an offense that's similar to the Cowboy's scheme under Garrett." Dallas was ranked in the top 10 in rush attempts under Garrett between 2016 and 2019, during which time, Ezekiel Elliott won two rushing titles. Despite being hindered by a high ankle sprain last season, Barkley still ran for over 1,000 yards and had six touchdowns in 13 appearances while also catching 51 receptions for an additional two scores. Look for him to come off the board within the first three picks in fantasy drafts for the 2020 campaign, especially in PPR formats.
Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers accumulated 483 passing yards on screen plays in 2019 - the second-highest mark in the league - according to Pro Football Focus.