Exactly one week from today the 2021 NFL free agency signing period will be underway and by then we should know if Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will be continuing his career elsewhere. Smith-Schuster is an interesting soon-to-be unrestricted free agent to watch this next week or so because he figures to be in the top two at his position but in a possible depressed market due the league’s salary cap going down a little more than $15 million this year.
During his Wednesday interview on 93.7 The Fan, longtime NFL insider John Clayton weighed in on the impact he thinks the lowered salary cap this year might have on free agency around the league and specifically how it might impact Smith-Schuster’s market value.
“So, there’s discounts that are there,” Clayton said. “In a normal year if the cap was going to go up $10 million, then JuJu probably could get $16 or $17 million. But now the question for that is, who’s going to give the long-term deal? Because if you’re not getting what your value is, and he’s probably not going to get value for what he’s worth, you might take a two-year deal so you can hit it again in 2023. So, that’s going to be the intriguing thing for these free agents to try to follow.”
It sure would be hard for the Steelers to re-sign Smith-Schuster to a two-year deal at fair market value or even slightly below fair market value and that’s mainly because of what his 2021 salary cap charge would be on such a contract. The only way around that would be to add three voidable years and even then, it would be a tough re-signing to afford from a 2021 salary cap charge perspective. It’s tough to do no matter how you slice it unless the Steelers were to get highly creative with a contract structure for him.
Where is Smith-Schuster’s market value right now in Clayton’s eyes?
“I look at the JuJu as maybe a $15 million guy,” Clayton said. “And again, we’re all still trying to gauge how much less players have to take in this depleted market right now.”
If Smith-Schuster does hit free agency, however, Clayton sees several potential suitors for the Steelers former second-round draft pick out of USC other than the Las Vegas Raiders, who he mentioned a few weeks ago seem to be interested in the 24-year-old wide receiver.
“Yeah, I would have to think that Miami would be in the hunt,” Clayton said. “The New England Patriots could be in the hunt, although it’s not Bill Belichick’s nature to pay top receivers that much money. It’s just like he doesn’t pay pass rushers top money. You know, he tends to go a different way. But they’re sitting there with $68 million of cap room and they don’t have hardly anything at receiver.”
Later during his interview, Clayton mentioned that the Cincinnati Bengals might be a team interested in signing Smith-Schuster in free agency.
“So, they [the Bengals] could be in the mix to go JuJu Smith Schuster, too, at wide receiver,” Clayton said. “But they do, even though, again, it may not be the highest number, but they are willing to go top dollar and they have the cap room to be able to do it.”
How will this all play out for Smith-Schuster? While I still think he comes close to the $17 million per year mark on a contract, it certainly doesn’t look good for him getting a deal done with the Steelers by March 17. Judging by a Twitch session Smith-Schuster conducted Wednesday night that he entitled, ‘March 17th, FREE MAN’, it sure seems like he’s expecting to be an unrestricted free agent next Wednesday.