The Pittsburgh Steelers have a number of intriguing candidates due for a contract extension this offseason. Among those not under contract beyond the 2020 season are three-time Pro Bowler Cameron Heyward, the most notable long-time veteran, as well as Alejandro Villanueva. Others who are not starters would include the likes of Tyson Alualu and Daniel McCullers.
But there are also some notable young players also theoretically up for an extension this offseason, including two three-year veterans who have a Pro Bowl in their background already. Sitting here in January, it’s not immediately clear that there’s a guarantee for either of them to be extended.
Arguably the more notable of these young players is wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Both he and James Conner, Pro Bowlers in 2018, had very disappointing seasons last year, both in part due to injury and in part simply to their own struggles on the field.
Smith-Schuster, 23, is technically the team’s top wide receiver, but he did not finish first in any receiving category. In fact, he didn’t even finish second in many of them. He did also miss four games due to an injury, plus time in other games, and played through injury as well.
The 2017 second-round pick is now headed into the final year of his rookie contract, with James Washington entering his third and Diontae Johnson his second. Ryan Switzer is also going into year three under his rookie contract, while Deon Cain is a third-year player who is not under his rookie contract, because he has previously been released without being claimed off waivers.
Earlier this month, Smith-Schuster told reporters that he was not preoccupied with his contract status. “Just doing what I’m told, just trying to get healthy for the next season and just trying to help the guys”, he said of his current focus.
Ordinarily, many contract extensions do not get done until the summer, during training camp or even later. Joe Haden got his extension done in August, for example. Back in 2014, Marcus Gilbert got his extension after putting in a strong offseason hinting at the progress he had been making, and which he ultimately showed on the field as he began to turn his career around.
Smith-Schuster caught just 42 passes in 2019 on 70 targets, picking up 552 yards for three touchdowns. There are the lowest numbers of his career, even on a per-game basis if you factor in the amount of time that he missed.
Of course, the big asterisk here is the quarterback position. He put up 111 catches for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns with Ben Roethlisberger in 2018. He was also adjusting to being the number one receiver. Nevertheless, evaluating his worth in 2020 and beyond is at least partly guess work, projecting future adjustments to be made.