James Conner's 2019 approach: 'I haven't earned anything'

PITTSBURGH -- James Conner's experience showed during a media session after Tuesday's organized team activities, which shouldn't surprise given his battle-tested first two NFL seasons.

The Steelers running back entered his rookie year in 2017 with much fanfare but admittedly left it humbled. Conner's sophomore breakout coincided with the biggest storyline of the NFL season as Le'Veon Bell challenged the system with a yearlong holdout on the franchise tag.

Conner was tasked with replacing an All-Pro and friend while handling a new set of expectations on the fly. The result was a Pro Bowl campaign, and now a tone-setting leadership presence that became fairly obvious Tuesday.

Instead of declaring himself the Steelers' top back, Conner cut in the open field. "I haven't earned anything," Conner said. "That's what training camp and everything is for."

Asked whether a wild offseason that included wide receiver Antonio Brown's departure motivated the team, Conner said without hesitation, "We’re just motivated by a Super Bowl."

"From the outside looking in people might think it’s like some chaos or something," said Conner, addressing the aftermath of the Brown and Bell sagas that tested the team's resolve. "Really we’re a tight-knit group. That locker room is incredible. With all the guys in there, the camaraderie, everybody loves each other, really. People might think it’s chaos, but it’s not like that at all."

If a tight team is built on competition and respect, Conner sounds eager to emphasize both in the running back room.

Despite averaging nearly 21 touches per game last season on his way to 13 total touchdowns, Conner says he's completely open to sharing the ball with backfield mates Jaylen Samuels, who's a skilled pass-catcher, and fourth-round rookie Benny Snell Jr.

Samuels told the Post-Gazette certain packages could have Samuels and Conner on the field at the same time. And Conner sees similarities between himself and Snell, who was a workhorse, physical back at Kentucky like Conner at Pitt.

"Who doesn’t like carrying the ball?" Conner asked. "But if you look around the league, a lot of teams are really successful using multiple backs. That’s how you win games is with depth. I’m all for that. Those guys are talented, can make plays. They can make some plays I can’t make. I’m all for it.”

Conner and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will be offensive pillars alongside Ben Roethlisberger, but Conner makes clear the team needs everyone on the roster to flourish. Shared experiences such as Roethlisberger recently hosting offensive players at his Georgia lake house will strengthen friendships and translate on Sundays, Conner said.

"Everything is not just competition and who can make the most plays on the field," Conner said. "It’s important to be a good person and have good character. I’m learning that throughout my time in this league. It’s not just the guy who makes plays who stays around the longest, though that’s a huge part of it. But a lot of other things go into it as well.”

Year 3 will showcase Conner without interruption. No more storylines about the star player he's replacing. No more questions about the NFL transition. The moment is his, and Conner seems ready to share it.

"No players motivate us. We’re motivated by a trophy," he said.