Will the 2020 NFL season really be the final one as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers for wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster? As I have stated in a few previous posts, the answer to that question could quite possibly wind up being yes and it’s time to now go into detail as to why that is.
For starters, Smith-Schuster, the Steelers second-round draft pick in 2017 out of USC, is currently in the final year of his rookie contract. While the Steelers could try to sign him to a contract extension later this summer, there’s no current signs that such a transaction will ultimately happen and especially not at the annual price the team would probably want to get him locked up for.
With Smith-Schuster coming off his worst season as a professional, 42 receptions for 552 yards and three touchdowns in just 12 games played due to a concussion and knee injury, he would be foolish to agree to a contract extension that would result in him being paid outside of the top 15 annually at his position, which right now would be less than $13 million a season. And especially if he’s doing just fine right now with his endorsement earnings outside of football, which he probably is.
Could, however, the Steelers even afford to pay Smith-Schuster on a four-year contract extension this offseason that averaged $15 million per season in new money? From a salary cap perspective, a Smith-Schuster extension could probably be managed and especially if an extension with either defensive lineman Cameron Heyward or outside linebacker Bud Dupree were to get done by the time the team reports to training camp in July. An extension for either of those two players would likely result in their current 2020 cap chargers dropping enough to be able to wedge in a $4-$5 million cap charge increase this season that could come as a result of a Smith-Schuster extension.
If the Steelers are unable to get an extension worked out with Dupree by the July 15th deadline to do so, we could potentially see them at least attempt to negotiate with Smith-Schuster the remainder of the summer and especially if an extension with Heyward is also worked out by the time preseason ends, which seems likely at this point.
What even is Smith-Schuster’s market value right now? Probably somewhere between $13-$16.5 million annually, depending on which side you were to ask. A $16.5 million new money average would put Smith-Schuster in the top 10 highest paid wide receivers in the NFL currently while a $14 million new money average would rank him just in the top 15 highest paid at his position. A $13 million new money average would at least put Smith-Schuster just outside the top 15 and equal what Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery currently earns.
So, what will ultimately happen with Smith-Schuster next offseason should he and the Steelers fail to get an extension done prior to the start of the 2020 regular season? Regardless of the kind of season that Smith-Schuster winds up having in 2020, it seems very likely that he would at least test unrestricted free agency next March barring the Steelers using the franchise tag on him. To warrant receiving the franchise tag next March from the Steelers, Smith-Schuster would need a 2020 season that would rival the one he had in 2018. That means around 100 catches for at least 1280 yards and five or more touchdowns.
Should Smith-Schuster ultimately have a 2020 season that comes remotely close to rivaling his 2018 output, and the Steelers don’t franchise tag the young wide receiver, he might still could cash in big as an unrestricted free agent next March due to supply and demand. He could ultimately be one of four or five wide receivers from the 2017 draft class vying for the right to be the 2021 offensive skill position free agent prize to get next March. Even second or third place finish in free agency could result in Smith-Schuster earning more annually than what the Steelers might want to look to lock him up for per season later this offseason and more guaranteed money to boot.
Could the Steelers ultimately not sign Smith-Schuster to an extension this offseason, not franchise tag him next offseason and still manage to get him inked long-term prior to the start of the 2021 free agency signing period? Technically, yes, but odds are very good that such an occurrence wouldn’t ultimately happen. At worst, Smith-Schuster would at least likely want to test free agency next March if not franchise tagged by the Steelers.
So, where’s the next line in the sand at when it comes to figuring out if 2020 is likely to be Smith-Schuster’s last season with the Steelers? Personally, I think the July 15 extension deadline for Dupree is a great place for an initial line. If the Steelers can’t ultimately get Dupree signed to an extension by July 15th, he’ll need to play under his franchise tag amount in 2020. No new deal for Dupree by July 15th also increases the likelihood that 2020 will be his last season with the Steelers.
By not having to invest any new money in Dupree this offseason, there’s a chance that the Steelers might try a bit harder to funnel money they potentially had earmarked for their franchise tagged outside linebacker in the direction of Smith-Schuster and especially if the two sides could come to agreement on a four-year extension that averages around $14-$15 million annually in new money.
Regardless of the July 15th initial-line-in-the-sand date I listed above, the much firmer line is the start of the 2020 regular season. Should Smith-Schuster remain unextended come Week 1 of the 2020 regular season, odds then increase drastically that it will be his final one in Pittsburgh with the Steelers unless he’s given the franchise tag prior to the start of the 2021 new league year in March.
The long-term impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on not only the NFL, but the entire world, being still unknown could also factor into the Steelers dealings with Smith-Schuster and others moving forward as well. While the NFL would likely do everything in their power in the next several months to prevent a backward slide in the league’s salary cap through a bargaining and borrowing from future year’s revenue, it still makes it very hard on teams wanting to negotiate lucrative deals the remainder of this summer in the meantime.
I will make sure to revisit this Smith-Schuster topic come July 15th, or earlier if Dupree signs an extension prior to then. By then, maybe we’ll learn a little more about what the Steelers offseason contract extension intentions, if any, are with Smith-Schuster by then. Maybe we’ll learn a little more by then about what kind of monetary impact the pandemic will have on the 2020 NFL season as well. In the meantime, however, the notion that 2020 could ultimately be Smith-Schuster’s last season with the Steelers must be viewed as a very, very plausible one.