Le'Veon Bell's replacement: Here are five things to know about Steelers RB James Conner

Le'Veon Bell won't play in the Steelers opener, and could miss more that that

The situation between the Steelers and their star running back is getting uglier by the day.

Although Bell is a big part of the Steelers' offense, no one in Pittsburgh is panicking right now, and that's because the team has high expectations for the next man up on the depth chart: Second-year running back James Conner. 

Conner isn't a household name, but he likely will be after this week. Not only will he be the Steelers starting running back on Sunday in Cleveland, but he's the guy you're going to want to hunt down in your fantasy league if you drafted Bell. 

So who is James Conner?

Here's five things to know about the Steelers 23-year-old running back. 

1. His rookie season ended with an injury 

After being selected in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Conner didn't see much action last season. Although he played in 14 games, Conner carried the ball just 32 times for 144 yards. The Steelers running back missed the final two games of the season after tearing his MCL in Week 15

However, Conner definitely appears to be over that injury. During the 2018 preseason, Conner finished as the highest graded running back in the entire NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. 

Conner finished the preseason with 19 carries for 100 yards. The running back's biggest game came in Week 2 of the preseason against the Packers when he carried the ball five times for 57 yards. Not only did he average 11.4 yards per carry, but he also tacked on a 26-yard touchdown run in a 51-34 loss. 

2. He's not feeling any pressure this week

When the Steelers take the field on Sunday in Cleveland, all eyes are going to be on Conner, with most people wondering whether or not he'll be an adequate replacement for Bell. Although that sounds like a lot of pressure for a second-year running back, Conner said this week that he's not feeling any added pressure. 

"[People] are not in my shoes. They might think it's pressure, but to me it's just football and doing my job," Conner said, via ESPN.com. "We've been here 8-to-5. It's just my job. The outside world thinks it's pressure, but it's just football. It's always been that way."

Conner doesn't care how many times he touches the ball against the Browns as long as his team comes away with the win. 

"No pressure on me," Conner said. "There are a lot of people waiting to see how my performance is going to be. As long as we win, I'm cool."

Conner's biggest game in 2017 came in Week 4 when he rushed for 26 yards in a 26-9 win over the Ravens. As the starter on Sunday, there's a good chance he'll pass the mark in the first half, if not the first quarter. 

3. The team believes in him

Although Le'Veon Bell is a big part of the Steelers offense, Maurkice Pouncey doesn't expect the team to miss a beat with Bell out and Conner in. As a matter of fact, Pouncey says that Conner would have been a first-round pick if he wouldn't have had cancer in college.  

"A star is born every year in the NFL. Did anyone know Kareem Hunt would be an All-Pro before last season? If James Conner didn't have cancer, he'd have been a first round pick," Pouncey said this week, via NFL.com. "Just watch him."

The reason Conner's not feeling any pressure is probably because he knows his team believes in him. 

4. He comes much cheaper than Bell

If Conner ends up having a huge game against the Browns, that's good news for the Steelers and bad news for Bell. Although no one is expecting Bell to return to Pittsburgh in 2019, it's definitely not going to happen if Conner becomes a star. As things stand the Steelers have Conner under contract for three more years at $578,000 (2018), $668,000 (2019) and $758,000 (2020). That three-year total of 2.004 million is more than seven times less than Le'Veon Bell's 2018 salary of $14.54 million. 

Not only is Conner cheaper, but the Steelers offense might actually end up being more successful with him in the lineup instead of Bell. 

Back in 2015, the Steelers offense seemed to function just fin, even though Bell missed 10 games during the season. 

5. Cancer survivor and hometown hero

With Bell out, there's a good chance that everyone in Pittsburgh wants to see Conner succeed and that's because he's a fantastic story. Not only is he a hometown hero, but he survived a bout with Hodgkin's Lymphoma after being diagnosed in December 2015 while attending Pitt. 

"When I heard those words -- 'You have cancer' -- I admit I was scared," Conner said in a school release at the time. "But after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that fear is a choice. I choose to not fear cancer. I choose to fight it, and I will win."

Five months after his diagnosis, Conner was given a clean bill of health in May 2016. During his time away from football, he completed a chemotherapy regimen that helped him win his battle. 

Basically, with Bell out, Conner is going to be a pretty easy guy for NFL fans around the country to root for. 

CBS Sports Writer

John Breech has been at CBS Sports since July 2011 and currently spends most of his time writing about the NFL. He's believed to be one of only three people in the world who thinks that Andy Dalton will... Full Bio

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