Jaylen Samuels' Fantasy Outlook After James Conner's Leg Injury

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistDecember 3, 2018

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jaylen Samuels(38) runs against the Los Angeles Chargers in the \1 of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Don Wright/Associated Press

The Pittsburgh Steelers lost more than the game Sunday when Mike Badgley drilled the winning field goal to clinch a 33-30 victory for the Los Angeles Chargers.

Head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters running back James Conner suffered a lower leg contusion when he exited in the fourth quarter, which was a worrisome update for Steelers fans and fantasy players alike.

Conner has been the bell cow for Pittsburgh this season without Le'Veon Bell, seeing how quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was the only other player on the team with more than 18 carries entering Sunday's game. He's been a fantasy stalwart and helped save plenty of seasons when Bell held out.

Jaylen Samuels figures to be the next man up if Conner is sidelined, and he proved he can be a threat in the aerial attack against the Chargers with three catches for 20 yards and a touchdown to go with two carries for five yards. Still, he had a mere 10 carries for 26 yards and four catches for 34 yards and a touchdown prior to the game.

It would be a massive risk for fantasy players to take a chance on Samuels at this stage of the season.

While the Steelers will eventually want to see what they have after using a fifth-round pick on the rookie out of NC State, Conner's impending return if he did avoid a serious injury significantly limits his ceiling. There is also no track record in place to trust, and Pittsburgh hasn't even experimented with him in many different sets when Conner is healthy.

The only reason for fantasy players to take a chance on him is the possibility Conner misses time and the hope that, if the starter's success in place of Bell is any sign, a plug-and-play running back can be a viable option in the Steelers offense.

Defenses cannot afford to stack the box with Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster on the outside, and an offensive line Football Outsiders ranks as the 14th-best run-blocking unit and best pass-blocking unit in the league through 12 weeks can clear the way against an outmatched front.

That formula spells success for Samuels if Conner misses game action.

The rookie is worth a fantasy flier at this point for running back desperate teams based on his high upside, but monitor Conner updates throughout the week before even thinking about inserting him into starting lineups.