The Pittsburgh Steelers probably didn’t think they had much of a shot at keeping JuJu Smith-Schuster this year, but once it became apparent that the depleted market would limit players’ earning potential, they were suddenly in the running. Ultimately, the team and the player decided that one more year, at $8 million, was in the best interests of both parties.
There is probably a realization among both, though, that that is likely as far as the relationship will go. At least, that would be the most probable outcome of him having the sort of season that they hope he does. A season that will contribute significantly to a championship run, while simultaneously fetching him top dollar, which is why both sides wanted to continue in 2021.
“That’s what I had the mindset of, obviously, being able to play out and get the best position for myself possible”, Smith-Schuster told Mike Florio on Tuesday. “That’s the same thing this year. I think this year will be a lot less stressful because I’ve been through that process and I know what it feels like. I’m actually ready, and I just can’t wait. At the end of the day, it’s all about just playing, and that will take care of itself on the back end”.
Smith-Schuster was one of the hot young stars of the NFL coming out of the 2018 season. Playing alongside Antonio Brown, with Ben Roethlisberger near the top of his game, the wide receiver duo put up fantastic numbers, each topping 100 receptions for 1200-plus yards. Brown had 15 touchdowns, Smith-Schuster seven.
Things haven’t followed that same upward trajectory over the past two years, of course, which is why he was able to be signed for a one-year, $8 million deal as a 24-year-old former Pro Bowler. The 2019 season in particular was dogged by injuries, both his own and Roethlisberger’s.
The 2020 season marked somewhat of a return to form, finishing the year with 97 receptions, though for just 831 yards, that stark inefficiency tied in large part to how he was used within the offense as a short-yardage slot presence who often was thrown to behind the sticks, if not behind the line of scrimmage. But he also caught a career-high nine touchdowns.
With the salary cap expected to rebound in robust fashion in 2022, and in a new offense in which he expects to have a more dynamic role and more opportunities to make big plays under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, but Smith-Schuster and the Steelers are hoping for a more impactful season from their still-young star, even if it means a parting of ways come March.