Player: JuJu Smith-Schuster
Position: Wide Receiver
Free Agent Status: Unrestricted
2020 Salary Cap Hit: $1,984,476
2020 Season Breakdown:
JuJu Smith-Schuster’s career has gone all wonky since he made the Pro Bowl in 2018 as a second-year player, catching 110 passes that season for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns. Outside of Antonio Brown, that was the highest total for receiving yards in franchise history, and the second-most receptions behind Hines Ward’s 112-catch season.
Now the Pittsburgh Steelers are facing the prospect of moving on from their most productive wide receiver over the course of the past four seasons, something that a vocal minority (or majority?) of fans are very much rooting for, whether because they have grown to dislike him or simply don’t believe he is worth what he will inevitably be paid.
Yet he caught a career-high nine touchdown passes this year, and showed up in the postseason with a big 13-catch, 157-yard, one-touchdown performance. What most will focus on, however, is the fact that he only recorded 831 receiving yards, despite catching 97 passes.
That is because the Steelers changed the way that they used him, as reflected in his insanely low 4.4-yard average depth of target (compared to 8.8 yards, literally twice as much, from 2018). But he caught more than 75 percent of his targets, and was a reliable performer on possession downs. He is capable of producing more, and in a wider variety of roles, than he was permitted to in the Steelers’ 2020 offense.
Free Agency Outlook:
I think we can begin with the assumption that the Steelers would like to re-sign Smith-Schuster and keep him around. I think they like him a lot, both as a player and a person, and are really unconcerned about TikTok sorts of things (they’ve dealt with far worse from players by any objective measure).
Whether or not they can afford to keep him, or if he wants to stay (regardless of what he says), is another matter. He has already acknowledged that he has a list of teams that he would be interested in playing for, and has talked about how he is closely watching how the landscape evolves as quarterbacks are dealt from team to team.
He has made it pretty clear that he has every intention of getting his market value, but he has also been open about the fact that he wants to win, so I don’t think it’s a given that he is simply going to take his most lucrative contract offer, provided that they are competitive.
Even taking into consideration the salary cap situation rolling backward for 2021, based on current contracts at the position, his fair-market value floor is in the range of $15-16 million per season. He should be able to find that, and could likely find more provided that teams view him as having untapped potential based on the issues the Steelers’ offense has had over the past two seasons, particularly at quarterback. I’m sure Tom Brady and many others would love to throw to him.