I’m not sure there has been a bigger offseason in recent memory for the Pittsburgh Steelers in terms of the number of total free agents, and the number of prominent free agents, that the general consensus projects them to lose. As it stands, they could be losing three Pro Bowlers, among other important pieces.
The most significant name on their list is wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, the four-year veteran who is still just 24 years old and still has plenty of quality football left ahead of him—in spite of what some Steelers fans may be inclined to think. Many seem to be convinced that he is not very good, but the expectation is that at least some team will be convinced otherwise, and will pay him accordingly.
In fact, Pro Football Focus is projecting that he will be paid quite well. Listing him as the 23rd-ranked free agent this offseason, they predict that he will sign a four-year contract worth $68 million, averaging $17 million per season—and that the team signing him will be the New York Jets (in fact, they also have the Jets signing James Conner and Matt Feiler). The article reads:
JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to hit free agency having just turned 24 years old because of how young he was when he entered the NFL before the 2017 season. His exact role and ceiling is still something of an open question. His best season — an 81.8 overall grade in 2018 — came working predominantly inside and when Antonio Brown was the primary threat for the Steelers. Injury robbed us of the chance to see if he could step into Brown’s role and replace that production before the team decided — aided by the emergence of Diontae Johnson, among others — to move him back to the slot for most of his snaps.
There is a lot to like about his game. He is clearly smart, understands coverages and can exploit both man and zone defenses from the slot, as well as having good size, but his projection as a full-time perimeter receiver involved more guesswork, and that’s his biggest battle heading to the negotiating table.
Contract Analysis: Even before the 2020 season began, pundits predicted that Smith-Schuster would be playing his final season in Pittsburgh. With the emergence of Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, that’s now even more of a safe bet.
While the Steelers have expressed a desire to retain Smith-Schuster, it’s simply improbable that they would be able to swing the sort of contract that he is going to command, and that he rightfully should accept in exchange for his services.
Even in a weakened market with a salary cap that is projected to be upwards if nearly $20 million south of where it was this past season, the expectation is still out there that Smith-Schuster will get what his predicted market value was.