We have just a few days until we find out the fate of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent on March 17 at 4:00 p.m. Regardless of what happens with Smith-Schuster in the next few days, however, one year from now we’re likely going to be waiting for yet another Steelers wide receiver to sign elsewhere.
Currently, Steelers wide receiver James Washington is about to enter the final year of his rookie contract. That means that assuming he sticks on the Steelers roster all season that he’ll be scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent a year from now. In short, I wouldn’t expect the Steelers to re-sign Washington before then, unless they could get him to agree to a way below market deal.
The Steelers have a long history of letting wide receivers leave via free agency under general manager Kevin Colbert. It total, there have been four worth noting and Smith-Schuster would make the fifth, assuming he’s not re-signed in the next few days.
In 2005, the Steelers let wide receiver Plaxico Burress ride off via free agency to sign a six-year, $25 million contract with the New York Giants. The very next year, the Steelers saw wide receiver Antwaan Randle El leave via free agency and sign a seven-year, $31 million contract with Washington. Both did ultimately return to the finish their respective NFL careers with Steelers, however.
Wide receiver Mike Wallace was the next to leave the Steelers via free agency in 2013 when he signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Miami Dolphins. The following year, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders left via free agency and signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Denver Broncos.
Assuming Smith-Schuster does indeed leave via a free agency, Washington figures to benefit from that some in 2021 and mainly as a Z receiver and especially if fellow wide receiver Chase Claypool is asked to initially move inside to play the slot. To date, Washington has 90 career receptions for 1,344 yards and nine touchdowns.
Should Washington not have a career season in 2021, there certainly won’t be much consternation from fans about whether he stays or goes a year from now. Even if there is some consternation about him possibly hitting unrestricted free agency, it surely won’t be the same level as we’re seeing now from fans regarding Smith-Schuster.
The Steelers just don’t have a long history of paying wide receivers good money on their second contracts. In fact, the list from the last 25 years only includes the likes of Hines Ward and Antonio Brown. While Brown did get a nice pay day from the Steelers way back in 2013, the percentage of guaranteed money was super low due to him facing restricted free agency. They paid him just enough where he had no choice but to sign.
As for Ward, his second contract wasn’t much to write home about. In fact, they had Ward over the restricted tender barrel as well. He ended up signing a four-year extension worth $9.5 million, including a $2.5 million signing bonus in 2001, Colbert’s second year with the team.
In closing, don’t get too attached to the Steelers two other young wide receivers, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, as odds are incredibly good that both will ultimately ride off into the unrestricted free agent sunset as soon as their rookie contracts have ended in after the 2022 and 2023 seasons, respectively.