Week 1 Fantasy Booms and Busts: James Conner goes off

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/24171/" data-ylk="slk:Antonio Brown">Antonio Brown</a> and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/30218/" data-ylk="slk:James Conner">James Conner</a> (right) had some moments to celebrate in Sunday’s tie at Cleveland
Antonio Brown and James Conner (right) had some moments to celebrate in Sunday’s tie at Cleveland

It hasn’t been a fun year for brand-name running backs.

A bunch of runners were selected early in May’s draft; collectively, they’ve had poor summers and mediocre debuts. Sony Michel and Ronald Jones didn’t play in their respective openers Sunday.

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And then there’s the situation in the Pittsburgh backfield. The Steelers had to settle for a bizarre 21-21 tie at Cleveland, but James Conner, filling in for Le’Veon Bell, did all he could.

Conner was used a whopping 40 times in his first NFL start, lugging 31 times for 135 yards on the ground and adding five grabs for 57 yards. He scored twice, a 22-yard scamper and a four-yard plunge. He’s probably one of the most improved players in the NFL this year, after playing very little in 2017.

Bell, you’ll remember, also took a major step forward in his second season. But right now, he’s not taking steps of any kind. Bell is holding out from the Steelers, albeit he holds little leverage at the moment. The Steelers aren’t going to trade him, release him, or extend him. And although it would be silly to compare Conner to Bell, we can at least say that the Pittsburgh offense is not sunk without Bell.

We’ve seen an understudy back take over in Pittsburgh before. An injured Bell played just six games in 2015, paving the way for a wonderful DeAngelo Williams season (11 touchdowns, 1274 total yards). Williams, at age 32, was the RB4 that year.

If Conner can hold onto this gig for a while, he could go bonkers with a cupcake September schedule. The Steelers host Kansas City next week; the Chiefs probably have one of the worst defenses in the league. And the Buccaneers wait for Week 3; Tampa Bay shocked the world Sunday with a 48-40 win at New Orleans, but it wasn’t because of its defense (26 first downs allowed, 475 yards).

Pittsburgh desperately needs the Week 2 home cooking, because Ben Roethlisberger is still iffy on the road. He threw three picks Sunday, although he also had his share of connections (23-for-41, 335 yards). His one touchdown pass went to Antonio Brown (9-93-1, 16 targets); Juju Smith-Schuster (5-119-0, eight targets) was efficient, as usual.

Cleveland’s defense piled up four sacks and six takeaways, which is usually enough to win a football game. Alas, Tyrod Taylor was a mess throughout the raindrops, posting a 15-40-197 line (4.9 YPA, 51.8 rating). Josh Gordon’s only catch, on three targets, was a nifty 17-yard touchdown at the right pylon. Jarvis Landry needed 15 targets for his 7-106-0.

Taylor was Cleveland’s leading rusher (8-77-1), which makes you wonder what he could do with a position change down the line. Terrific athlete, so-so quarterback. Carlos Hyde couldn’t make three yards a carry, but he did plunge in a short touchdown. Duke Johnson (25 total yards) was ineffective. Nick Chubb had a 17-yard run and two unsuccessful totes.

The Browns (undefeated in 2018!) travel to New Orleans next week, probably getting the Saints at the wrong time. Get them ready, Hue Jackson.

Other Week 1 Fantasy Winners (Early Games)

• Bengals Offense: Joe Mixon is another back looking like a Year 2 leap; trimmed and confident, he ripped through the Colts for 149 total yards and a touchdown. Andy Dalton overcame an ugly interception to post a very Andy Dalton line (21-for-28, 243 yards, two scores), and A.J. Green showed up (6-92-1, eight targets). Tyler Eifert (3-44-0) secured all of his targets.

• Buccaneers Offense: If you had Ryan Fitzpatrick likely to rule Week 1, please give us your lottery numbers. Fitzpatrick was brilliant at the Superdome, riddling a respected Saints defense for five touchdowns (four passing, one rushing) and 453 total yards. Fitzpatrick only threw two passes to his primary tight ends (Cameron Brate had zero targets), but DeSean Jackson went off (4-146-2), Mike Evans was perfect (7-147-1, seven targets) and Chris Godwin scored, too (3-41-1).

Jameis Winston owners can look at this news two different ways. Perhaps Winston will go bonkers with these toys, too — he was brilliant in the preseason, and had a fast finish last year. But if Fitzpatrick continues to wield a hot hand, could he keep the gig after Week 3? The schedule doesn’t let up — Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chicago close out the month.

• Saints Offense: It’s hard to fault Drew Brees and company for losing on a day where they scored 40 points. Alvin Kamara had 141 total yards and three end-zone visits — three touchdowns, two two-point conversions. That guy is unfair. Michael Thomas destroyed the Bucs secondary, snagging 16-of-17 looks for 180 yards and a touchdown. He missed a second score by a couple of feet. Brees finished with 439 passing yards and three touchdowns. If the Saints defense can’t get right, it’s probably good news for all of these guys. But Cleveland is a favorable draw in Week 2.

• Tom Brady: So far, so good for the freshly-minted 41-year-old. Brady chucked three touchdown passes on Houston, utilizing old friends (James White, a beastly Rob Gronkowski) and emerging new pieces (Philip Dorsett, looking comfortable in his second Patriots season).

Too Early To Tell (Early Games)

• Andrew Luck: A 319-yard game sounds nifty, but he needed 53 passes to get there and averaged just 6.0 per attempt. It was encouraging to see T.Y. Hilton catch a short touchdown pass, and Eric Ebron (4-51-1) also scored. Jordan Wilkins was ordinary on the ground (14-40-0), though he did secure all three of his pass targets, collecting 21 yards.

Week 1 Fantasy Losers (Early Games)

• DeShaun Watson: Rustiness was the word of the day, as Watson slogged through a 17-34-176 day at New England. He had a touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington, was picked once, and managed a meager 5.2 YPA. Watson did add 40 yards on eight rushes, but he never looked like the generational talent we saw last year. The Titans and Giants call in the next two weeks, a gettable schedule.

• 49ers Offense: Jimmy Garoppolo wasn’t going to go undefeated for the rest of time, and a Week 1 trip to Minnesota was not an easy mark. But it was disappointing to see the Niners get just 16 points — and only one touchdown — against a quality opponent. Garoppolo was picked three times and finished with a 45.1 rating.

Alfred Morris (12-38-0) fumbled on back-to-back goal-line rushes, losing the second. That will push you into the doghouse. Matt Breida didn’t go off, but he was more effective (11-46-0). George Kittle narrowly missed three different scoring chances — one a drop — but still rang up 5-90-0 for his day. If he can stay healthy, he looks like a star. Marquise Goodwin left with a quad injury, opening the way for a Dante Pettis touchdown. The Niners get the Lions and Chiefs the next two weeks.

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