Around the AFC North: James Conner Will Be Essential for Offensive Rebound

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Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner

Pittsburgh Steelers: James Conner's Future May Hinge on Staying Healthy

James Conner wants to remain with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the running back's health will be a key factor in determining his future.

The Steelers ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing last season and Conner missed six games with a variety of injuries. After rushing for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2018, Conner's numbers dropped to 464 yards and four touchdowns last season. In 2018, Conner also missed three games in December and the Ravens overtook the Steelers to win the AFC North.

Conner is entering the final year of his contract and the Steelers drafted Maryland running back Anthony McFarland Jr. in the fourth round. After playing college football at Pitt before joining the Steelers, Conner hopes to have a healthy bounce back season in 2020 that will lead to him re-signing with Pittsburgh.

"It'd be hard to put another helmet on because of everything this city means to me," Conner said on Adam Schefter's ESPN podcast. "Just because of everything and what this city means to me. It would be hard. I'm Pittsburgh through and through."

The Steelers expect their offense to be far more dynamic in 2020 with the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from elbow surgery. However, an improved running game would take pressure off Roethlisberger to carry the offense. In each of the last two seasons, the Steelers have averaged fewer than 25 running plays per game.

Conner recently posted pictures of himself on social media showing a ripped upper body that displays how hard he is working to prepare for the season. If Conner returns to his 2018 form, Pittsburgh's running game will reap the rewards.

Cleveland Browns: New Head Coach Kevin Stefanski Making Strong First Impression

Dealing with restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic presents another challenge for rookies, both players and head coaches. However, first year Browns Head Coach Kevin Stefanski has impressed players with his offseason approach since being hired.

Stefanski hasn't been able to meet with the Browns as a group yet, but his methods in Zoom meetings and conversations have been well received.

"Kevin is obviously an extremely sharp guy," Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said via ESPN. "He's able to relate to everybody. That's one of the best parts about him and being around him so far."

Stefanski flew to Texas in March to meet with Mayfield before the pandemic made travel more challenging. Getting the most out of Mayfield will be one of the keys to Cleveland's success, and Stefanski appears to have started on a positive vibe with his young quarterback.

The Browns never established consistency under former Head Coach Freddie Kitchens and their disappointing 6-10 season led to him being fired after one season. Mayfield believes Stefanski is building a foundation for success, even during the pandemic.

"Just hearing his message, everything he does is with a purpose," Mayfield said. "It's a very deliberate message and he has everybody believing in that on the staff. I think that's how the foundation should be set, and he's done an unbelievable job of that."

Cincinnati Bengals: Tee Higgins Could Be a Dynamic Target for Joe Burrow

As the No. 1 pick in the draft, quarterback Joe Burrow has drawn plenty of attention. However, the Bengals are also excited about their second-round pick, wide receiver Tee Higgins of Clemson.

With 59 catches for 1,167 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, Higgins was one of the top wide receiver prospects in a draft that was loaded at the position. Coaches at Clemson compare Higgins to another talented wide receiver from that school, DeAndre Hopkins of the Arizona Cardinals, who has five 1,000-yard seasons in the NFL.

Higgins' wingspan at the Combine measured 81 inches, one inch longer than Hopkins'. A former star basketball player in high school, Higgins uses his reach, size, and athletic ability to make difficult catches look easy. He has been doing that since his days at Oak Ridge (Tenn.) High School.

"His acrobatic catches at practice were just unbelievable," Joe Gaddis, Higgins' coach at Oak Ridge told ESPN. "I would just look and shake my head and think, 'Man, did he really just do that?' He'll do it in Cincinnati."

The Bengals envision A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and Higgins providing Burrow with a three-headed monster at wide receiver. Higgins saw Burrow light up Clemson's defense in the national championship game when he led LSU to victory. Now Higgins is looking forward to catching passes from Burrow.

"I feel like we can really turn the organization around and come out with a winning season next season," Higgins said. "I'm really looking forward to it."

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