The Pittsburgh Steelers have a number of starting players slated to be unrestricted free agents in about a month’s time. That includes two starting offensive linemen, four key members of the secondary, and multiple wide receivers who have led the team in receiving yards in the past.
Needless to say, they’re not going to be able to bring all of them back. But if there is one of their free agents that they need to hang on to, Gil Brandt for the league’s website believes it is sixth-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. The 24-year-old already re-signed with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent a year ago. Brandt writes:
Smith-Schuster’s gushing over Dallas and wistful social media post would seem to point toward his exit. The team might not be in a hurry to prioritize keeping a veteran who missed most of 2021 with injury when it’s got a gaping hole to fill at quarterback. But Smith-Schuster is also perhaps the outbound Steeler with the best chance to make a real difference for Pittsburgh in 2022, if he can stay healthy and return to form. And this roster isn’t exactly doomed to the AFC North cellar, provided the right signal-caller can be located. Smith-Schuster is a known quantity to the coaching staff. He could help ensure Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement is able to hit the ground running and keep Pittsburgh competitive.
It is a fair point that Brandt makes that a player like Smith-Schuster, provided he could stay on the field, would be beneficial to an incoming quarterback as a reliable possession receiver in the slot. He has the best hands of the wide receiver room.
But the team’s new money-downs, interior target could very well just end up being second-year tight end Pat Freiermuth instead, who inherited a lot of the sorts of targets last season that Smith-Schuster would normally get, after he suffered a shoulder injury and missed the majority of the regular season.
One thing that could help Pittsburgh keep Smith-Schuster is, of course, his health. Part of the reason he chose to stay in Pittsburgh was to revitalize his market value, but his shoulder injury completely prevented him from doing that; indeed, he likely hurt his market.
He signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the Steelers in 2021, however, and he had marginally better offers from others. Is it so ludicrous to think that he could receive offers in the same ballpark, even on multi-year deals, this offseason against the largest cap in history?
After all, they do have a lot of other free agents to think about, including Joe Haden, Ahkello Witherspoon, Trai Turner, Chukwuma Okorafor, Terrell Edmunds, and Arthur Maulet. I think we can safely exclude James Washington from this list—there’s no way he would re-sign at this point.