2021 was supposed to be JuJu Smith-Schuster’s big cash-in year, the year he hits unrestricted free agency and makes bank, life-changing, generation-changing fortunes for himself and his family. In part because of performance and usage issues, but largely because of an unpredictable downturn in the salary cap, he wound up staying home for one more year in the hopes of trying again in 2022.
He ultimately signed a one-year contract to come back to the Pittsburgh Steelers worth $8 million, but he is said to have turned down contracts with, among others, the Baltimore Ravens, which would have paid him a bit more, plus incentives to get still more, on one-year deals.
He weighed the options and ultimately decided that it made the most sense to stay in Pittsburgh. For one thing, he’ll have a better opportunity to produce here. He also had a sense of loyalty to the team and to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But while he would love to stay with the Steelers long-term, he’s not ruling anybody out as suitors—even AFC North teams.
“There’s a lot of times where you’ve seen other guys go to other teams in the North. Like people say, if the price is right. You just never know”, he told reporters earlier today regarding whether or not he would consider signing with an AFC North team.
Just this offseason, former Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton moved from the Steelers to the Cincinnati Bengals after they offered him a four-year, $24 million contract, though that is one of the rare occasions a Steeler has directly signed from Pittsburgh to another AFC North team. A small portion of the fan base did harass him on social media for the decision to sign with a rival club.
“I also do take into consideration that, I do consider the fans, and that fan base”, Smith-Schuster added about his decision-making process in free agency. “They made me who I am today. They made my fan base, and what I’ve created in Pittsburgh, it’s gonna carry a very, very long way. I think they’ll still support me wherever I go, but the North. So that’s how I see it”.
In other words, it sounds like he knows that signing with a rival team would be bad for his brand among Steelers loyalists. Most may follow him to Kansas City or Denver or New York or wherever else he might sign, but a smaller portion would still support him in Baltimore or Cleveland.
But at the end of the day, money talks. If the Bengals want to offer him the best deal nine months from now, he shouldn’t hesitate too much to sign it if he really feels like they are building a roster that has championship potential.