JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Future With Pittsburgh

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As reported in The Athletic, longtime Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette states the Pittsburgh Steelers do not intend on signing JuJu Smith-Schuster to a new deal. Many would have thought Smith-Schuster was going to be with the team long-term.

Career Stats and Review

As a rookie, JuJu had 917 yards on 58 catches and seven TDs. Thoe numbers came off of just seven starts and 14 total games. In 2018, he had a career-high season with 111 catches, 1,436 yards, and seven scores. Along with Antonio Brown, both men had impressive years. After the 2018 season, it seemed destined that Smith-Schuster was a future superstar. His stock was trending and he was even becoming a social media darling along with his dog.

Antonio Brown spiraled at the end of the 2018 season and it turned into a wildfire. Brown was no longer with the team after the turmoil and JuJu was left as the No.1 WR now. His fellow receivers seemed promising and the Steelers had a chance at a playoff run. In Week 2 of the season, QB Ben Roethlisberger went down for the season with an elbow injury and the rest of the year was played between backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. Neither was stellar at the helm and led to JuJu having just 42 catches for 552 yards and three TDs. The sundae on top was that even he missed four games due to injury. Pittsburgh would miss the playoffs but things continue to get worse for the young receiver.

The media threw JuJu into the limelight by dissecting his skills. It seemed unanimous that no one felt he could succeed as the true No.1 receiver. He worked best when relying on another star to split the double coverages. The receivers he had with him in 2019 were young and raw still, not superstars like AB was. It seemed that Pittsburgh thought what the media was thinking: Smith-Schuster won’t cut it as the sole star receiver on a roster but will command a contract like one.

The Steeler Way

Pittsburgh can be stingy when it comes to handing out giant second contracts. They surely won’t give one to someone who isn’t worth it. It’s sort of their style. They drafted Smith-Schuster highly in 2017. James Washington was a second-rounder in 2018, Diontae Johnson in the third round in 2019, and Chase Claypoolin the second round this year. Some say the fact that the team continued to draft a WR by the third round every year since JuJu’s first year speaks volumes on their distrust in his abilities. Don’t overthink this aspect. The Steelers are widely known for developing receivers through the draft and need depth.

Now as for Smth-Schuster’s second deal, his agent will surely be trying for Top 10 money. If you look at his career stats as a whole, he is worth between $16 and $20 million per year. If you base it on receivers with similar stats of his 2019 year, his worth is between $3 and $8 million per year. His agent could be aiming for the Amari Cooper-level deal: $20 million per year for five years. The only good news for the Steelers is that they get one more year of a cheap Pro Bowler. His 2020 cap hit is just $1.3 million with just $297,869 in dead money. The one constant issue in trying to figure out what JuJu is worth was the 2019 disaster. One could chalk it up to a fluke year with poor QBs under center and another could say his potential was shown. Both are right. However, Pittsburgh is already ahead of the game and is aware JuJu and his agent are going to present a deal too large for the commitment and 2020 will be his last year in black and gold.

So is there any chance at all the two sides strike a deal?

30% at best.

Starting a New Empire

All signs point to 2021 being the start of a rebuild in Pittsburgh. Even if by some chance JuJu Smith-Schuster can rebound and have a great year, it’s been proven that he is only as good as the QB throwing to him. That’s not the making of an elite WR. Roethlisberger has one, maybe two years left in the league and the team will be looking for the next franchise player. He’s the best current option at WR for the Steelers but is only worth a new deal if there’s another superstar he can play off of. It’s the Steeler way to not toss a large contract at a superstar receiver, but they would trade him.

Possible Suitors

They obviously want something out of this whole ordeal. A high draft pick would be ideal as they start rebuilding. Two suitors seem to become ideal landing spots: Giants and Packers.

The Giants need a WR as they only have Slayton, Shepard, and Tate as their starters. Their receiver group has taken quite a step back since OBJ left. New York could include Golden Tate in the trade package and the Steelers could use him as a veteran in a young locker room. In addition, New York is a prime location for JuJu to build his growing brand bigger.

Green Bay is an interesting option. Their relationship with QB Aaron Rodgers in on the rocks since drafting a QB in the first round. The team could stay true to their promise to build around Rodgers and add a needed playmaker like Smith-Schuster. On the other hand, if Jordan Love gets to start sooner than later, he’ll have a good weapon to give him a fighting chance. The Packers already have Davante Adams, who can act as the AB for JuJu. The main issue here is the cost of a future deal. He’ll likely want to command $16-18 million per year and there’s not current room in the cap space. There are some veteran cuts that could be made and a few restructures to free up enough space. If Rodgers leaves, that opens up around $22 million alone. A trade package could include a 2nd round pick, a fifth-round, and a cornerback like Josh Jackson or even a halfback like Aaron Jones.

Making It To The Market

There is also the option that JuJu ends up landing in free agency without a trade happening. The Steelers would see a 3rd round comp pick from him signing elsewhere. If this is the case, Smith-Schuster would want to use 2020 to up his stock. On the flip side, teams will be using the 2019 campaign to try and get a discount on him. One landing spot could be Cincinnati. The Steelers won’t trade him to a rival but Cincy could sign him as a FA. AJ Green’s contract is expiring and they would need a new star. Another option is New England. They won’t overpay for him but if they can get the discount, their offense gets a huge boost and helps whichever QB they start.

Fans won’t want to see a fan-favorite leave so early but it could be for the best. The Steelers need cap space and draft picks to make their rebuild go smoothly and effectively. There’s still the chance he can prove himself worthy enough in 2020 as a true No.1 to earn a second deal with Pittsburgh. Being tagged isn’t too far-fetched in that case and giving him one more “make it or break it” season. Either way, Smith-Schuster is still bound for a promising career somewhere in the league and in the right fit.