It’s difficult to project how likely it is that the Pittsburgh Steelers will make a serious effort to re-sign fourth-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, not without knowing the salary cap for 2021. But cap constraints aside, at least three things point toward Smith-Schuster not returning to Pittsburgh.
First, going back to the 1990s the Steelers have signed just two wide receivers to second contracts—Hines Ward and Antonio Brown. Second, with Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington still under contract, wide receiver is one of the positions where the Steelers have proven depth, making it easier to allow the former second-round pick to walk away. Third, Smith-Schuster is generally regarded as one of the Top 25 players projected to be available in free agency, so losing him will likely result in the Steelers receiving a compensatory draft pick in 2022, thereby softening the blow.
If Not the Steelers, Then … The Bears?
Assuming the Steelers can’t or won’t pay JuJu Smith-Schuster what he believes he’s worth, the USC product will certainly have multiple suitors. In his feature on the “one free agent each NFL team should pursue in the 2021 offseason,” Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus suggests that the Chicago Bears should make a run at Smith-Schuster.
“Without much cash to spend, the Bears may not be all-in on the top names at [wide receiver],” notes Monson. “However, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s struggles in the past couple of years will make his price tag low enough. He still has the most touchdowns of any receiver in the league when lined up in the slot over the past two seasons (11). Smith-Schuster has functioned on the outside as well as in the slot, even if he has been less effective there, but he would be able to perform within Chicago’s offense.”
Of course, it’s Smith-Schuster’s (relative) struggles in the past two seasons that make his value difficult to evaluate.
Smith-Schuster had 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns in his breakout second season. But he caught just 42 passes for 552 yards and three touchdowns when playing with quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin ‘Duck’ Hodges in 2019.
This past year he caught 97 passes and had nine touchdown receptions but gained just 831 yards (8.6 yards per reception) while playing with a declining, 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger. The longest pass he caught all year was a 31-yard touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys.
The Social Media Factor
Another issue for Smith-Schuster’s future employer—whether it’s the Steelers, the Bears, or another NFL team—is Smith-Schuster’s ongoing focus on nurturing his social media presence (3.4 million followers on Instagram, 2.8 million followers on TikTok) and building his personal brand. Few NFL observers have suggested that it has compromised his on-field performance. And for most of his time in Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster has been one of the team’s most popular players, one who frequently contributes to charitable endeavors, with his donation to the Ryan Shazier Fund for Spinal Rehabilitation being the most recent example.
But in 2020, Smith-Schuster’s social media and personal branding became a double-edged sword for the Steelers. Not only did his pre-game logo dancing become a distraction for his coaches and teammates—so much so that head coach Mike Tomlin had to have “a talk” with Smith-Schuster—they seemed to serve as added motivation for at least two of Pittsburgh opponents, namely the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals.
Furthermore, his desire to celebrate the aforementioned 31-yard touchdown reception on the Dallas Star at AT&T Stadium could have easily led to an in-game altercation.
What Does JuJu Smith-Schuster Want?
If you ask Smith-Schuster about his priorities as he enters free agency, he says winning is at the top of the list.
Appearing on ‘The Doug Gottlieb Show’ on Monday, he said, “For me, I’m always about winning. I want to be on a team where we’re fighting … where we compete for the playoffs every year.”
But he didn’t discount the “business side and the money.”
“I feel like I want to be paid for what I’m worth, obviously, for what I do for the team, particularly,” noting that he believes he did an admirable job with the opportunities he had in 2020.
“I think I did pretty well, Smith-Schuster said. “As far as like converting on third downs, as far as making plays for my team when it must be needed, catching the ball, getting vertical, I think I did a pretty good job. When they called out my name, I was there to answer.”
Meanwhile, (most) Steelers fans will be happy to hear that he is very much open to continuing his career in Pittsburgh.
“I would love to come back,” Smith-Schuster said. “I’d love to play with Ben for [the time he’s still] here.”
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