Kevin Gorman: James Conner ready for Le'Veon Bell's reps at RB
The Steelers opened their organized team activities Tuesday, also known as the start of their season of diversions and distractions.
As luck would have it, the biggest distraction of Day 1 of 10 OTAs provided a delicious diversion from the Steelers' only absence.
While everyone wondered what Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would say to Mason Rudolph, the third-round pick out of Oklahoma State and his supposed heir apparent, no one knew the whereabouts of All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell.
Other than, of course, where Bell wasn't: That would be UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side, as Bell boycotted OTAs for the second consecutive year.
Bell skipped the voluntary (but not really) workouts to protest the Steelers placing the franchise tag on him for the second consecutive year.
Bell held out of training camp last year, but this one could last into the regular season.
Other than that and Ryan Shazier sidelined for the 2018 season, the Steelers' run to Super Bowl LIII is off to a great start.
Anyway, Roethlisberger made a revealing comment (one I will quote directly so as not to take out of context) about the importance of OTAs for one player in particular: running back James Conner.
"This is a big time for James, with some of the injuries he had last year and learning last year," Roethlisberger said of the former Pitt All-American.
"I think this will be a good time for him to get as many reps as possible so we can all see what he can do, and that he can see what he can do, too."
The sight of Conner on the practice field was a promising sign for the Steelers, considering Conner's rookie season ended with MCL surgery on his left knee.
Conner declared himself "100-percent" healthy and ready to replace the workload carried by Bell for however long is necessary.
"I want all the reps as possible before it really counts," Conner said. "It all counts right now, but until we strap up Game 1, I want to get as many reps as possible so I can be as comfortable as possible for whenever my number is called during the season."
Speaking of numbers, where the Steelers secondary was busy switching theirs — Joe Haden took Mike Mitchell's No. 23, so Sean Davis took Haden's No. 21, so Mike Hilton took Davis' No. 28, so Nat Berhe took Hilton's No. 31 and Cam Sutton took Rob Golden's No. 20, which he wore last season so Haden could have No. 21 — Conner still is wearing the No. 30 that was the NFL's best seller last summer.
Conner didn't have much of a chance to prove himself last year because of Bell's presence and his own bouts with the injury bug.
So this is an important opportunity for Conner, as much to prove he can stay healthy as it is to show he's an every-down back.
"It's nothing I can prove," Conner said of the injuries. "There's ways to improve and stay healthy, but football is football. I had an MCL injury. It's hard to name a running back in the NFL without a knee injury. Injuries are going to happen. I can't control that."
But the health concerns followed Conner from Pitt to the Steelers, a next-door move on South Water Street, after MCL surgery in his right knee that caused him to miss the 2015 season and after beating Hodgkin's lymphoma.
It didn't help that Conner missed OTAs with a hamstring strain and training camp practices with a sprained AC joint in his shoulder.
Staying healthy is nothing compared to the pressure that could come with replacing Bell, who had 406 touches in compiling 1,321 yards rushing and 655 receiving.
Bell should be atop the list of distractions for the Steelers, especially if his holdout lasts into the regular season this time.
Where Roethlisberger opened himself up to scrutiny with his comments about Rudolph, there's no question who will be the Steelers' starting quarterback.
But Bell's absence deserves criticism. Twice he has turned down lucrative contract offers that would have made him the NFL's highest-paid running back.
After skipping training camp, Bell didn't have a 100-yard game until Week 4 at Baltimore. The Steelers lost two of their first five games as he got into game shape.
Conner knows the Steelers could be counting on him to carry a greater load, ahead of Fitzgerald Toussaint, Stevan Ridley and fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels.
"Right now, I'm just focused on getting better myself and taking it one day at a time," Conner said. "It's OTA Day 1. The season will be here soon, but it's still a long way away. So just take it one day at a time. I'm going to go in there, study and watch the film and come out (today) for Day 2 of OTAs."
For Conner, the best diversion would be a day of no distractions.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.