For obvious reasons, the 2021 season has produced the least robust wide receiver market in some time — and by robust, I’m referring to the compensation players are receiving, not the quality of players who are available.
Only five street or unrestricted free agent wide receivers signed deals that averaged $10 million per season or more. That doesn’t include Allen Robinson and Chris Godwin, both franchise tagged by their teams. Including the tagged players, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s contract signed with the Steelers — a one-year contract worth $8 million — ranks eighth in average annual compensation.
The fifth-year veteran is among the many players at all positions who opted for one-year contracts with the notion that they will be hitting the open market again next year with a much more robust cap expenditure available to teams, which should yield better offers. But he still feels he was at the top of the position in this free agency class.
“Depending on who’s out there, who hits the market? It’s gonna be a hot market,” he told Michael Irvin recently on the former wide receiver’s podcast about where he expects to be relative to the market a year from now. “Even just this year alone, I feel like I was the best receiver on the board, as far as numbers-wise, stat-wise, and all that. Being able to put that out there.”
“But at the end of the day, it’s what the team wants and fits them best. I think next year I’ll hit it even harder. As far as ranking myself, probably like Top 25, Top 30,” he added, referring to where he feels his numbers reflect himself in terms of value, a remark he previously made.
But he expects this year to be different, and that he will have the opportunity to show people that he is that number one receiver, the guy everyone thought he could be coming out of the 2018 season when he made the Pro Bowl in his second year with 111 receptions for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns.
Since then, Antonio Brown crazied his way out of town. Ben Roethlisberger’s arm fell off and was reattached. And Smith-Schuster himself has evidently dealt with a recurring or lingering knee injury, while being ‘stuck’ playing in the slot.
He has talked about his desire and belief that he will have the chance to play on the outside more in 2021, a plausibility if his prior knee issues influenced the team’s keeping him in the slot. A change at coordinator and the further maturation of the young wide receiver group — including expanding their roles to include more slot work — make this possible.
Smith-Schuster understands what his numbers look like. Which is why, when he’s asked to rank himself, he gives a conservative answer that sounds as though he lacks confidence. But the underlying message in these remarks should be clear: Look me up next year and see where I am.