Fantasy Football 2020: An Analysis of the Steelers Backfield

Stolen Carries In The Steel City

by Alex Kurpeski 


It was just over a year ago when James Conner, the hometown hero who had beaten cancer and then gone on to accomplish his NFL dream by playing for the Steelers, was the toast of the fantasy football world, having come off of a breakout 2018 campaign that saw him finish as the RB6 overall. In his second season with Pittsburgh, Conner looked the part of a three-down workhorse back, tallying 1,470 total yards, 13 total touchdowns, and 55 receptions while averaging a respectable 4.5 yards per-carry. At 6’2, 230 lbs, Conner fit the archetype that the Steelers tended to rely upon at the tailback position, combining a bruising running style with versatile receiving ability. Expectations were high for Conner in 2019, with many fantasy players using their first or second round picks on him. The results were far from satisfactory, as Conner’s performance was directly impacted by the season-ending injury suffered by Ben Roethlisberger in Week Two. The third-year back himself would only play 10 games all season, as he dealt with various injuries throughout the year. In his absence, the team turned to a committee approach, distributing carries among the likes of Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr., and even rookie Kerrith Whyte. While none of the Conner contingency plans looked the part of a workhorse back, it’s possible that they may have carved out some significant roles in the run game for 2020. 


Anthony Macfarland Jr


Perhaps the biggest threat to Conner’s workload was not on the team last year. Fourth-round pick Anthony McFarland Jr. (not related to Booger) is a player who I would compare to Devin Singletary of the Buffalo Bills. At 5’8, McFarland is a shorter back, one who also happens to check in just a few ticks over 200 lbs. Fortunately for McFarland, his pure athleticism and explosivity as a runner allowed Maryland’s offense to lean on him in a three-down capacity during his time with the Terrapins. While he was paired with another talented back in Javon Leake, the redshirt sophomore blew his teammate out of the water on film. While he’s not the behemoth that Conner is, McFarland runs extremely hard, using his low center of gravity to his advantage as a runner. There are certainly some holes to McFarland’s game, as he fumbled five times on just 245 carries in college while dropping three easy passes in his final collegiate season. McFarland also happens to run with suboptimal shiftiness for a smaller back, opting to run through bigger defenders instead of around them far too often. These issues could be chalked up to McFarland’s inexperience, however they will keep him off the field for Pittsburgh until he addresses them. His best season came in 2018, when 30% of his carries went for 10+ yards and he averaged a robust 7.9 YPC, breaking the thousand-yard rushing mark in the process. While I doubt that McFarland will become the workhorse for Pittsburgh, he could carve out a significant touch share as a change-of-pace option. 


Behind Conner and McFarland, I’m expecting both Samuels and Snell to get some tread in the running game, as both backs performed admirably given the circumstances of last season, while also accounting for 50.5% of the team’s carries from the position in 2019. While Samuels did struggle immensely on the ground (2.7 YPC and only 175 rushing yards despite logging 4 starts), his contributions in the passing game (he caught 47/57 targets for 305 yards and a TD) will be a valuable trait as the team looks to surround Roethlisberger with playmakers. Snell, a mid-round pick who few had seen as a potential fantasy asset in his rookie season, was much more comfortable toting the rock, rushing for 426 yards and a pair of touchdowns. While his YPC (3.9) and limited work as a receiver (only three catches on four targets) made it clear that he was nothing special, his ability to solidify the ground game as such a young player makes it clear that he can keep improving if given touches. Let’s take a look at our projections for the distribution in this backfield:


James Conner


  • 857.5 rushing yards
  • 175 ATT
  • 10 rushing TDs
  • 31 receptions
  • 273 receiving yards
  • 1 receiving TD
  • 210 fantasy points (RB14-22)


Anthony McFarland Jr.


  • 344 rushing yards
  • 85 ATT
  • 2 rushing TDs
  • 12 receptions
  • 146 receiving yards
  • 1 receiving TDs
  • 79 fantasy points (RB50-RB60)


Jaylen Samuels


  • 94 rushing yards
  • 29 ATT
  • 0 rushing TD
  • 24 receptions
  • 187 receiving yards
  • 1 receiving TD
  • 58.1 fantasy points (RB65-RB78)


Benny Snell


  • 205 rushing yards
  • 41 ATT
  • 2 rushing TDs
  • 2 receptions
  • 8 receiving yards
  • 0 receiving TD
  • 35.3 fantasy points (RB75-RB95)


I see this backfield being dominated by Conner, with some work divided up to McFarland, Samuels, and Snell. In general, I feel like only Conner and McFarland will be worth rostering during the season, barring an injury to either player. This could get a lot messier if Conner once again struggles with injuries and inconsistency. 

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