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The Pittsburgh Steelers were almost guaranteed to lose wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster this offseason due to a perilous salary cap situation.
However, general manager Kevin Colbert found a way to convince the 24-year-old to take a home discount and re-sign for the 2021 season.
JuJu Smith Schuster rejects Chiefs, Ravens to remain in Pittsburgh
It’s especially amazing that Pittsburgh’s front office managed to convince Smith-Schuster to run it back for one more year considering the other suitors who offered more money. The dynamic pass-catcher could’ve played alongside the likes of Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, or become the clear No. 1 in Baltimore alongside another NFL MVP in Lamar Jackson.
Instead, Smith-Schuster will proceed as QB Ben Roethlisberger‘s go-to target. The pair connected often last season, as Smith-Schuster hauled in 97 receptions for 831 yards and nine touchdowns.
Ever the savvy social media man, Smith-Schuster celebrated his new contract on Twitter (WARNING: Strong language):
Part of the reason the yards per catch (8.6) were by far the lowest of Smith-Schuster’s career was the nonexistent rushing attack the Steelers had. They ranked dead-last in the NFL in yards gained on the ground, which meant a lot of predictable, quick passes as a substitute for that.
Pittsburgh still needs to find a way to better balance its offense under new coordinator Matt Canada, and Roethlisberger will need to be at his best in what could be his final season as a pro.
JuJu Smith-Schuster keeps NFL’s premier young receiving corps intact
Considering the Steelers already had impressive younger players on the roster in James Washington, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool all still on rookie contracts, the presumption was that Smith-Schuster would be a distant priority. Pittsburgh has even lost some key free agents like Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton, so it’s even more of a pleasant surprise for the team that Smith-Schuster decided to come back.
Big Ben seems to be on his last legs if the end of the 2020 campaign was any indication. Following an 11-0 start, the Steelers won just once after that, including a loss to the AFC North rival Cleveland Browns in the first round of the playoffs.
At least for now, Pittsburgh’s passing attack isn’t at all short on weapons. But Claypool is an inconsistent, toolsy player who made numerous explosive plays as a rookie, Johnson had issues with drops, and Washington is more of a pure deep threat than nuanced wideout.
Smith-Schuster is the best of all worlds, and is the senior leader of the receiving corps. His return can’t be understated at least in terms of what it means to the Steelers in 2021 as they mount a bid to repeat as division champions.
JuJu Smith-Schuster could still walk in 2022 offseason
You can bet part of the reason Smith-Schuster returned was the rich tradition of the Steelers organization and the fact that they took the initial chance on him as a second-round pick out of USC. Obviously, Smith-Schuster shouldn’t have fallen that far in the draft, as the electrifying start to his pro career has proven.
But in taking the pay cut for this coming season, and with the salary cap expected to soar in 2022, Smith-Schuster could still leave Pittsburgh next year and wind up playing for someone like the Chiefs or Ravens. Both have MVP field generals, whereas the Steelers’ plans at quarterback are shaky at best if Roethlisberger retires.
There’s plenty of reason for the Steelers to celebrate the victory of keeping Smith-Schuster in the near term. They just shouldn’t get too comfortable, because if big Ben flops and Pittsburgh doesn’t perform to expectations, it’s hard to envision Smith-Schuster sticking around after that.