Fantasy Football: If James Conner Plays, Start Him

James Conner
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 02: James Conner #30 of the Pittsburgh Steelers rushes the ball against Desmond King #20 of the Los Angeles Chargers in the second half during the game at Heinz Field on December 2, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The fantasy football playoffs are in full swing, and the success of many teams comes down to the health of Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner. Entering the week, Conner looked like a longshot to actually see the field. However, the second-year running back practiced on Friday and is officially listed as questionable for Week 15’s matchup with the New England Patriots.

Conner’s ankle injury was originally expected to keep him sidelined multiple weeks. Coming back against New England would put him ahead of schedule, which probably means he wouldn’t be at full health. Because of this, fantasy football owners may be wary about starting the stud running back. However, if you’re the James Conner owner, you need to take the risk and start him.

(Update: Per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, James Conner will not play against the Patriots. Do not start him.)

Fantasy Football: Start James Conner If He’s Active

The biggest concern for Conner owners is that Pittsburgh will put him on a snap count if he returns to the field. Doing this would obviously limit his ceiling and make him a touchdown-dependent play. However, if he plays, the Steelers will probably give him a full workload.

The duo of Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley just aren’t getting the job done in Conner’s absence. Facing off an atrocious Oakland Raiders run defense, the duo ran for just 32 yards on 16 carries. It’s hard to find a matchup easier than this one, yet neither running back could get anything going in the ground game. If they can’t do it then, they probably won’t be able to do it now. If Pittsburgh wants to win, they’ll need to turn to the only running back actually capable of running the ball.

This game is as close to a must-win as possible for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Once locks to win the AFC North, the Black and Gold are currently in the middle of a three-game losing streak. At the same time, the Baltimore Ravens are 3-1 over their past four weeks. Pittsburgh owns just a half-game lead in the division and they still have to face the Patriots and the New Orleans Saints.

This division is anything but safe for Pittsburgh, so they can’t afford to rest Conner if he’s capable of playing. Winning a championship is significantly easier if you win the division, so Pittsburgh will do everything in their power to win every game left on the schedule. There are situations where resting players is the smart thing to do, but this isn’t one of them. Conner increases Pittsburgh’s chances of winning, and the Steelers desperately need to win. If he’s active, Conner will see the field as much as humanly possible.

Conner’s Favorable Matchup

Additionally, the New England Patriots suddenly find themselves incapable of stopping the run. While the Patriots currently allow a respectable 18.2 fantasy points per game to running backs, that season-long average doesn’t tell the full story.

New England has been absolutely gashed on the ground in the past two weeks. In Week 13 against the Minnesota Vikings, Dalvin Cook finished with 9.3 yards per carry. Cook could have had a much bigger day, but then-offensive coordinator John DeFilippo inexplicably gave Cook just nine carries all night long.

The Patriots were equally as susceptible to running backs in Week 14, and the Miami Dolphins took full advantage of it. Frank Gore saw the majority of the carries against New England, running the ball 12 times for 92 yards for a staggering 7.7 yards per carry. Additionally, former Patriot Brandon Bolden recorded 60 yards and two touchdowns on just two carries.

These terrible performances directly coincide with New England’s decision to make Danny Shelton a weekly inactive. New England may add him back to the defensive rotation, but Shelton’s presence alone can’t fix a problem this glaring. Earlier in the week, I wrote that neither Jaylen Samuels nor Stevan Ridley was good enough to exploit this potential mismatch. James Conner, on the other hand, can easily dominate this game.

Last Word on James Conner in Fantasy Football

As of now, nobody knows if James Conner will actually play in Week 15. While you should have a backup plan ready, Conner is a must-start if he’s active. The second-year running back is clearly the best option in the Steelers backfield, and Pittsburgh will have no choice but to give him a full workload.

Thanks to a three-game losing streak, the Steelers hold just a half-game lead in their division. They still have two tough games left on the schedule, and they can’t afford to hold James Conner back in the final stretch of the season. If they do, they risk losing the AFC North and possibly falling out of playoff contention entirely.

Additionally, the Patriots defense has been atrocious against running backs in recent weeks. Dalvin Cook and Frank Gore both ran all over New England, as the Patriots defensive line simply could not win at the point of attack. Danny Shelton will shore up some of these problems, but he can’t fix it all on his own. Even if Conner isn’t 100% (he won’t be), he should still have decent holes to run through.

There’s always a risk of re-injury, but that’s a risk you have to take. Conner should still be the primary back, and the Patriots are hemorrhaging points to the running back position. James Conner took you this far in fantasy, let him bring you the rest of the way.

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