One might be able to argue that JuJu Smith-Schuster was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ big addition to the receiving corps this offseason. While he is the most veteran of the group, having been here for the past four years, it seemed to so many a foregone conclusion he would be gone in free agency that it’s almost like a new signing given that they were able to bring him back.
That’s not precisely the way second-year wide receiver Chase Claypool phrased it in speaking to reporters earlier this afternoon following OTA practices, but it is clear in his remarks that his teammates were like everybody else, assuming that Smith-Schuster was as good as gone.
“A lot of people were expecting him not to come back, not because he didn’t want to, but because of the cap space situation”, he said. “We all knew he really wanted to come back. We just didn’t know if it was possible. So when he came back, I was excited, because not only is he a good friend, a good player, just a good teammate, too. He does a lot for us. Always good to have a guy like that in the building”.
A second-round pick in 2017, Smith-Schuster has recorded 308 catches during his four years, for 3,726 yards and 26 touchdowns. He made the Pro Bowl in 2018 with a 111-catch, 1,426-yard, 7-touchdown campaign, and he had a career-high nine touchdowns last year on 97 receptions.
The free agency market was rough for almost everybody this offseason, however, as the COVID-19 pandemic had a detrimental effect on the league’s economics. Rather than the salary cap rising $10 million or so, it dropped about $15 million from the previous year, essentially a $25 million swing from where teams probably expected to be.
As a result, many veteran players opted to sign one-year contracts with the hopes of circling back and hitting free agency again next year with more success. Smith-Schuster is among those players, and he will have the opportunity to play out his second contract year in the same environment he’s known throughout his professional career.
Though he is the most senior of receivers in the room, Smith-Schuster remains among the youngest of those who have NFL experience. Only Claypool, drafted last year, is younger. James Washington and Diontae Johnson, drafted in 2018 and 2019 respectively, are both slightly older.
Smith-Schuster will not turn 25 until late in his fifth season this year, during which he seems to hope that he’ll be spending more time playing an outside receiver role as the rest of the group share responsibilities lining up in the slot.