JuJu Smith-Schuster's first foray in free agency is set up to be a robust one. Reports surfaced earlier this week about the Jets' reported interest in signing Smith-Schuster, who is set to enter the open market on March 17. The Raiders can also be added to the growing list of teams that will vie for the veteran receiver's services.
Las Vegas is "very interested" in Smith-Schuster, NFL reporter and ESPN Radio host John Clayton told 93.7 "The Fan" on Wednesday. The Raiders, who finished the 2020 season with an 8-8 record after a 6-3 start, did not have a 1,000-yard receiver in any of Jon Gruden's first three seasons back on the sideline. Amari Cooper, currently with the Dallas Cowboys, is the last Raiders wideout to eclipse the 1,000-yard barrier, doing so in 2016. The lack of a reliable receiving target contributed to the Raiders being just 23rd in the NFL in red zone efficiency last season.
A tight end led the Raiders in receiving yards for a fourth straight season in 2020. For a second straight year, that tight end was Darren Waller, who earned Pro Bowl honors after catching 107 of 145 targets for 1,145 yards and nine touchdowns (Jared Cook led the team in 2018 and 2019). Nelson Agholor finished second on the team with 868 yards and eight touchdowns during his first season in Las Vegas. Agholor is slated to become a free agent.
Second-year receiver Hunter Renfrow finished second on the team with 56 receptions. Rookie Henry Ruggs III caught just 26 passes but finished fourth on the team with 452 receiving yards. Tyrell Williams, who missed the entire 2020 season with a shoulder injury, is currently signed through the 2022 season. Williams' $11.6 million cap hit, however, may result in the soon-to-be 29-year-old receiver becoming a cap causality.
It appears that the Raiders may either pick between keeping Williams or Agholor. They could also decide to part with both in order to improve their odds at signing a big name receiver in free agency. That receiver could be Smith-Schuster, who caught 97 of 128 targets for 831 yards and nine touchdowns last season.
While his yards-per-catch was not impressive, Smith-Schuster was largely used as a possession slot receiver within Pittsburgh's offense in 2020. In 2018, with Antonio Brown playing alongside him, Smith-Schuster caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. That season, he caught the second 97-yard touchdown of his career, showing that he is capable of making big plays for an offense.
In four seasons in Pittsburgh, the former second-round pick caught 308 of 443 targets for 3,726 yards and 26 touchdowns. One of his most productive games actually came against the Raiders. In Week 14 of the 2018 season, Smith-Schuster caught eight of 12 targets for 130 yards and two touchdowns. His performance that day included a balletic touchdown reception near the end of the first half.
The 24-year-old receiver's market value is projected at $81 million over five years, according to Spotrac. Given their salary cap limitations, the Steelers are not expected to sign Smith-Schuster, the team's MVP in 2018. The Raiders are expected to be several million over the cap, although the NFL has not officially announced what the salary cap will be for 2021. Las Vegas, however, has several options at their disposal as far as saving money is concerned. One of those options is parting ways with Derek Carr, which would save $19.6 million over the cap.