Is James Conner entering his last season with the Steelers?

(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) James Conner
(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) James Conner /

Will 2020 be the last time the running back suits up for the Pittsburgh Steelers?

When the Pittsburgh Steelers added James Conner to their roster with a third-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, they likely weren’t expecting to use him in a featured role just two years into his tenure with the team.

But thanks to Le’Veon Bell sitting out the entire 2018 season, Conner was given the job as the Steelers’ top running back. He took advantage of his increase in opportunities and in 13 games for Pittsburgh in 2018 he ended up accumulating a total of 1,470 yards (973 rushing, 497 receiving) and 13 touchdowns.

After this performance from Conner, the Steelers had no problem letting Bell officially walk out the door during the 2019 offseason. Pittsburgh felt they had landed their next top running back and the future appeared to be bright for Conner in black and gold.

Could James Conner be entering his final season with the Pittsburgh Steelers?

As well as he played in 2018, Conner saw his performance trend in the wrong direction last year. In 10 games, he didn’t even surpass 750 total yards and his trips to the end zone fell to just seven.

There were a number of factors that contributed to Conner’s step back in 2019, including injuries and the Steelers not having quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the majority of the year. Still, Pittsburgh now has more questions about the top running back on their depth chart than they did following the 2018 season.

Currently, Conner is in the final year of his contract and he’s scheduled to become a free agent in 2021. A return to the Steelers after the upcoming season for the running back is far from a guarantee.

Conner is still only 25-years-old and his potential remains quite high. He was pretty banged up last season though and Pittsburgh might not want to invest a significant amount of money in someone who has trouble staying on the field.

If the Steelers decide to let Conner sign with another team in 2021, who will they replace him with? Right now, their running back depth chart consists of a bunch of unproven guys like Benny Snell Jr., Anthony McFarland Jr., Kerrith Whyte Jr., and Ralph Webb.

Would Pittsburgh turn to free agency in 2021 to find a new top running back? There are some intriguing names who are scheduled to become free agents next year including Derrick Henry, Leonard Fournette, Todd Gurley, and Jamaal Williams.

The Steelers have turned to free agency in the past to add more talent to their offensive backfield. But typically, Pittsburgh tends to prefer to find their new running backs in the NFL Draft. Some of the prospects who could be available for the Steelers to draft in 2021 include Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Alabama’s Najee Harris, and Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard.

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So Pittsburgh does have a number of different options when it comes to figuring out who is going to be their No. 1 running back in 2021. Which path will they end up taking?