Steelers Rumors: JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner Unlikely to Be Re-Signed

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 2, 2021

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) celebrates with running back James Conner (30) after making a touchdown catch against the Indianapolis Colts during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Don Wright/Associated Press

The Pittsburgh Steelers are reportedly expected to allow running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to leave in free agency during the 2021 NFL offseason.  

ESPN's Brooke Pryor reported Tuesday the Steelers have limited financial flexibility and their "priority" is retaining cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton, which likely won't leave enough cap space to bring back either Conner or Smith-Schuster.

Pittsburgh features three other receivers who made a significant impact in 2020—Diontae Johnson (923 yards), Chase Claypool (873) and James Washington (392)—along with a tight end in Eric Ebron (558) who can take over some of the slot routes usually run by Smith-Schuster.

That depth, combined with the fact the 24-year-old USC product should attract widespread interest, makes it no surprise he'll likely don a new jersey in 2021 despite his interest in staying with the club that selected him in the second round of the 2017 draft.

"At the end of the day, I want to have my legacy in Pittsburgh and retire there," Smith-Schuster told TMZ Sports last week. "I don't want to leave."

The Steelers' running back situation is a little more cloudy. They have Benny Snell Jr., Anthony McFarland Jr., Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds under contract for next season, but none of them have proved themselves as a No. 1 NFL rusher.

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Conner, who averaged 4.3 yards per carry in 2020 and has scored 26 total touchdowns in 50 games with Pittsburgh, was effective in the lead role over the past three years.

Pittsburgh must decide whether to utilize a committee approach and hope one of the four remaining backs can enjoy a breakout year in 2021 or perhaps use an early draft pick on a top prospect to lead the backfield.

The Steelers, who threw 656 passes last season compared to 373 rushing attempts, should remain a pass-heavy attack next season, which does take a little pressure off the search for Conner's replacement.

In addition, it's hard to blame the front office for trying to keep as many players together as possible from a defense that ranked third in both yards and points allowed in 2020.