JuJu Smith-Schuster has not been shy when it comes to discussing his first foray into free agency. Despite receiving slightly more lucrative offers from the Chiefs and Ravens, the veteran receiver decided to return to the Steelers on a one-year, $8 million contract. The former Pro Bowler is hoping that a big season in 2021 can lead to a lucrative four-year contract when he enters free agency once again in 2022.
Instead of trying to grow chemistry with Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes, Smith-Schuster decided to continue to sharpen his already strong rapport with Ben Roethlisberger, who also chose to return for what could be his final season in Pittsburgh. Smith-Schuster is hoping that a slight position change will lead to more production, as he anticipates playing more on the outside this season after most of his receptions in 2020 came in the slot.
"Being able to play outside is adding more to your craft," Smith-Schuster said on Wednesday, via Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "It's having another threat player on the other side with Ben. I think we have players that can play all the way around the offense. We have so many threats."
Smith-Schuster's best statistical season came in 2018, his second season in Pittsburgh. That season, Smith-Schuster led the Steelers with 111 receptions for 1,426 yards while scoring seven touchdowns. The team MVP that season, Smith-Schuster benefitted by playing alongside Antonio Brown, whose presence demanded considerable attention from opposing defenses.
With Brown's departure, Smith-Schuster became the Steelers' No. 1 receiver in 2019. Without Brown and with Roethlisberger out for most of the season with an injury, Smith-Schuster set career lows with 42 receptions for 552 yards and three touchdowns. With Roethlisberger back in 2020, Smith-Schuster caught 97 passes but posted a career-low 8.6 yards per reception. His underwhelming production, along with the NFL's reduced salary cap, undoubtedly hindered Smith-Schuster's value on the open market.
It's hard to project Smith-Schuster's production for 2021. The Steelers are not expected to throw as much as they did in 2021, as team president Art Rooney II has stressed the need to improve what was the league's 32nd ranked rushing attack in 2020. When the Steelers do throw, Roethlisberger will have a host of options that includes Smith-Schuster, fellow receivers Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington, and tight ends Eric Ebron and rookie Pat Freiermuth. The chemistry and trust that Smith-Schuster has built with Roethlisberger over the years should result in Smith-Schuster getting a healthy number of targets on a weekly basis.
"Is there a guy in the NFL that on third and short-to-medium you want the ball in his hands as much as JuJu? I can't think of one," Roethlisberger recently said. "The passion that he gives to this city and to this team to help us win is awesome."
Smith-Schuster will be in Pittsburgh in 2021, a fact that was anything but guaranteed at the start of the offseason. But it's going to be challenging for the Steelers to sign the still just 24-year-old to a longterm deal in 2022. Claypool, the team's Rookie of the Year in 2020, is surely in Pittsburgh's longterm plans. One could say the same thing about Johnson, a third-year veteran who led the Steelers in receiving last season. Pittsburgh also has save money for defensive stars TJ Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
The possibility of not being in Pittsburgh next year isn't lost in Smith-Schuster, who quickly became a favorite during his memorable 2017 rookie campaign. He is staying optimistic that 2021 will not be his last as a member of the black and gold.
"I think to come back for another four more years and have nine years as a Steeler would be tremendous and remarkable," Smith-Schuster said. "It would be unheard of from a receiver standpoint. Don't get me wrong, Pittsburgh is definitely an option on the table. I know they are one of the teams that have the most cap. A lot of people are going to want to get a deal. You have to play your butt off because you never know what is going to happen."