What do you call the third year of a four-year contract? For the Pittsburgh Steelers, that might as well be the contract year, because those who typically possess staying power, barring first-round picks who have a fifth-year option, are signed to extensions prior to the start of the final year of their contract.
That was the ‘contract year’ for players like James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2019, and it was a year marred significantly by injury for both parties. Each of them missed at least four entire games, plus parts of others, in addition to playing through injuries, suffering multiple throughout the year.
So what does that mean for 2020 and the possibility of them receiving a contract extension? Art Rooney II was asked that question pertaining to Smith-Schuster after he caught just 42 passes for 552 yards and three touchdowns in 2019. That is a year after putting up 111 receptions for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns, making the Pro Bowl as an alternate at 22 years old.
“I think it’s a tough season to evaluate with the different quarterbacks and some of JuJu’s injuries”, Rooney said of what the past year has held for Smith-Schuster, now their top wide receiver after Antonio Brown’s battles with reality. “It’s a tough season to evaluate from a lot of different standpoints. We still think highly of JuJu and think he can be an outstanding player in the league moving forward”.
That doesn’t necessarily say much about how they view potential contract negotiations this offseason, let alone if there will be any, at least directly. But by affirming their high esteem of Smith-Schuster and acknowledging the complexities of the 2019 season that go into evaluating his numbers, it does seem to imply that the past year hasn’t much tempered their enthusiasm about who he is as a player.
Early in the 2019 season, he became the youngest player ever to record 200 catches, and the youngest to 2500 receiving yards, for a career. Through three seasons, in 42 games, he has 211 receptions for 2895 yards and 17 touchdowns.
According to Pro Football Focus, he is one of just five players in Steelers history to top 2500 receiving yards within his first three seasons, though he does not rank at the top. That would be Mike Wallace, who caught 171 passes for 3206 yards and 24 touchdowns through his first three years. He also played in six more games. The others on the list are Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, and Louis Lipps.
Combined with the injuries, including an early foot injury through which he played, the departure of Brown and the loss of Ben Roethlisberger had a catastrophic effect on Smith-Schuster’s opportunities and ability to produce in 2019. I don’t envy the front office in their task this offseason to try to assess what the past season means about who Smith-Schuster is and what he is worth.