One way or another, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense is going to be in some sort of transition this offseason. While that transition isn’t likely, as yet, to include changes at the quarterback position, we could see a shift, for example, at the wide receiver position, with the ‘veteran’ of the group, JuJu Smith-Schuster due to hit free agency.
While the market prognostication places his value north of a $16 million-per-season average, the Steelers are facing one of the most complicated salary cap situations in the league, making it difficult to retain him.
Meanwhile, they also rest knowing that they have made significant investments in the position over the past three years, with James Washington (60th overall), Diontae Johnson (66th overall), and Chase Claypool (49th overall) each being taken in successive drafts.
Still, Smith-Schuster plays a critical role in the offense, as exhibited by his team-leading 97 receptions this past season, while also tying Claypool for the most receiving touchdowns with nine. His shift into increasingly playing in the slot over the past two years and being a favored target on third down won’t be easily duplicated.
Asked where he would prefer to play on the field while discussing his future on the Bart & Hahn Show earlier this month, Smith-Schuster declined to offer one, stating instead that his preference is to have the versatility to do it all.
“Honestly, wherever they play me”, he said. “This year, I played a lot, inside, having guys like James Washington, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool being vertical threats. It gets to the point where, I would love to be a guy that could go inside to outside. I would love to see Chase with his big body try to go inside and outside, too”.
“Pretty much, it’s a lot of mismatching with where we line up”, he added. “As far as running between the hashes and stuff like that, I’m always about getting down and dirty, making those big blocks and cracking down on d-linemen, running across the hashes, catching balls in traffic”.
While many Steelers fans certainly appear to have grown jaded about Smith-Schuster as a whole, including the contributions that he makes on the field, the reality is that he was an important player whose tasks and performance will not be easily replicated.
That’s not to say that they don’t have talent outside of him, or that they can’t continue to add more through the draft, as seems to be an annual tradition. It also doesn’t mean that they should break the bank to keep him around. But his absence will be felt, if indeed he is absent.