Today fourth-year Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster addressed the media and said “he would love to be a Steeler,” but refused to divulge whether there had been any progress between his agent and the organization in terms of contract talks. “That’s between my agent and the Steelers,” he said, before adding: “At the end of the day, I’m just here to play ball. I’m not going to be the type of guy who sits out…. I’m going to play regardless of if there’s a [new] contract or not.”
That’s a good thing, because it’s unlikely that a second contract will be forthcoming from the Steelers. It’s not that the Steelers don’t want to retain him; Smith-Schuster had 169 catches and 2,343 yards in his first two seasons while playing in tandem with Antonio Brown.
But Smith-Schuster, as lovable as he is, has not yet demonstrated the ability to be a No. 1 receiver, slumping to 42 catches for 552 yards and 3 touchdowns last year, all while battling injuries and adjusting to NFL life without Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger. All along Smith-Schuster has looked like the ideal No. 2 receiver, and he should be paid as such.
Except the Steelers don’t have the money to offer a No. 2-receiver-type contract, much less dole out No. 1 receiver money. Pittsburgh is staring at impending salary cap hell, which makes it almost inevitable that most of the team’s top 5 pending unrestricted free agents entering 2021 will leave Pittsburgh after this season. Anyway, the Steelers rarely sign wide receivers to second contracts, with Antonio Brown and Hines Ward being obvious exceptions.
Enter the New York Jets
But the New York Jets appear to be the ideal trading partner for the Steelers. First and foremost, they are desperate for help at the position, with Pro Football Focus recently grading them as the second-worst WR corps in the NFL.
That’s not ideal for QB Sam Darnold, who is entering a pivotal third season with a less than inspiring cast of wide receivers around him, not to mention a subpar offensive line. Adding Smith-Schuster would give Darnold a proven, reliable target and help open things up for running back Le’Veon Bell, who thrived in Pittsburgh, in part, because defenders were more worried about handling the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, among others.
Oh, and did I mention that Darnold also has some familiarity with Smith-Schuster, having played with him at USC in 2016? That year Smith-Schuster caught 70 passes for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns.
It’s also worth noting that the Jets have the money to extend Smith-Schuster’s contract. According to Spotrac.com’s NFL salary cap tracker, the Jets have the third-most cap space available, and could fit Smith-Schuster under the cap even if the salary cap declines to $175 million next year, as it very well might.
Last but not least, the Jets appear to have the draft capital to trade with Pittsburgh.
What Would the Steelers Ask for JuJu Smith-Schuster?
The starting point for any team looking to acquire Smith-Schuster would be a second-round draft pick. That’s because if the Steelers lose Smith-Schuster in free agency, he’s likely to get a big enough contract to yield a third- or fourth-round compensatory pick. So anything less than a second-rounder and the Steelers will keep him around for this year’s Super Bowl run.
My guess is that a second-round pick won’t be quite enough to pry him loose though. It would probably take a second rounder plus a lower round pick. Either that or a first-round pick, which the Jets could afford to part with, seeing as they have two in each of the next two drafts, thanks to the recent Jamal Adams trade.
To be sure, making a trade like this would be out of character for the Steelers, but these are unusual times. Anyway, no one expected the Steelers to trade a first-round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick last September, and a Smith-Schuster deal is a lot more predictable than that.
It helps that the Steelers have more wide receiver talent in the pipeline. If Smith-Schuster were to be traded, second-year receiver Diontae Johnson and third-year man James Washington would serve as the starters, with second-round pick Chase Claypool likely moving up into the No. 3 receiver role. Johnson has clear No. 1 receiver potential, while Claypool has all the earmarks of a great draft pick.
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