One of the toughest and more reliable wide receivers the Pittsburgh Steelers have had in their history is set to hit free agency next week, potentially dealing the Steelers’ offense in the first season post-Ben Roethlisberger a significant blow.
Though he’s been much maligned publicly — and unfairly, may I add, because of his off-field exploits on social media and on streaming services that rub some old-school Steelers fans and media the wrong way — JuJu Smith-Schuster is incredibly important to the Steelers’ success on and off the field, even at the young age of 25 years old.
So it’s puzzling to see Bleacher Report’s Gary Davenport make the case for the Steelers not re-signing Smith-Schuster in free agency ahead of the 2022 NFL season, especially considering the holes on the roster that will open here in a few days at the start of the new league year.
“As the Steelers begin the post-Ben Roethlisberger era, some veteran free agents won’t be back,” Davenport writes. “For example, the ascension of rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth makes Eric Ebron expendable. However, Pittsburgh also should strongly consider some less obvious farewells, including wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
“The 25-year-old missed most of the 2021 season, playing in only five games. Over the past two years, Smith-Schuster has become the king of the dink-and-dunk receivers, managing a meager 8.6 yards per catch, Davenport adds. “The Steelers have a pair of solid wideouts in Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson. They badly need to bolster their offensive line. While they could retain Smith-Schuster with their nearly $29 million in cap space, they should spend that money on more important issues than retaining a potentially declining underneath receiver.”
That feels an awful lot like box score scouting from Davenport when it comes to making this case. Sure, Smith-Schuster missed a lot of time in 2021 and when healthy was mostly a possession receiver that really stretched the field. But that doesn’t touch on the fact that he was the Steelers’ most reliable wide receiver by a wide margin when on the field, especially on the money downs like third down.
Add in the fact that Smith-Schuster put his free agency at risk by battling back from a season-ending shoulder surgery to return in three months and play in the Steelers’ Wild Card Round loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, his value to the team goes much deeper than production on the field.
Not only that, but labeling a guy like Chase Claypool as a “solid” wideout is a bit of a stretch at this point, considering the monumental step back the second-year wide receiver took in 2021. Diontae Johnson is certainly a solid wide receiver and potential No. 1 in today’s NFL, but letting Smith-Schuster walk this offseason, an offseason in which the Steelers have money for the first time in a long time, would be a big mistake overall.
On the surface at least, GM Kevin Colbert certainly isn’t ruling out re-signing the veteran receiver once again. Speaking to reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine in early March, Colbert commended Smith-Schuster for battling back from the shoulder injury and stated that the Steelers “admire” him overall.
“We always admire JuJu, we think he’s 32 and he’s 26,” Colbert told reporters. “He’s that veteran in a very young room. What he did at the end of the year, coming back and putting his free agency issues aside, said I’m going to try to help win a playoff game, it was huge.
“We take that into account and we really give him credit for having done that. So JuJu’s been a great player for us. He’s still a young player as well. So we’ll definitely take that look.”