Ranking the Top 5 Most Likely Destinations for JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistNovember 21, 2020

Ranking the Top 5 Most Likely Destinations for JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers are 9-0 and likely a long way from thinking about the upcoming offseason. Ideally, the team will continue to focus on its next opponent into February.

    While the Steelers may not be looking as much to free agency or the draft, the offseason is looming, and several key players are set to hit the open market. One of the most notable is wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster.

    Smith-Schuster has been one of the NFL's better young receivers over the past three-plus years—at least when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been healthy. He is on pace for roughly 96 catches,  917 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, and presumably, that production will earn him a sizable contract this offseason.

    Will that deal come from Pittsburgh? Given the team's pending cap situation and its depth at the receiver position, it could be difficult to justify. It's not an impossibility, of course, though the Steelers will face competition for his services.

    So, where might Smith-Schuster land in the offseason? We'll examine five prime landing spots based on factors like need, scheme fit, and cap space.           

5. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Steelers seem to have knack for finding and developing receivers, which has let to some quality veterans leaving the organization. Emmanuel Sanders was allowed to walk in free agency after his first four seasons. When Antonio Brown became unhappy with his role, he was traded.

    With young pass-catchers like Diontae Johnson, James Washington and Chase Claypool on the roster—and with Pittsburgh projected to be over the cap next spring—a return for Smith-Schuster may also be unlikely.

    However, there's one big reason to believe that Pittsburgh could re-sign Smith-Schuster: Ben Roethlisberger.

    Roethlisberger is under contract through 2021, and the Steelers could look to maximize their window with him under center. While there are other receiving options, Smith-Schuster has been a valuable, versatile piece this season.

    "I think we're always pushing the envelope to try and figure out where he best fits weekly—insides and outsides and motions and stacks, bunches, things like that," offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said, per The Athletic's Mark Kaboly.

    Smith-Schuster's future in Pittsburgh could hinge on whether the team is able to win the Super Bowl this season. If Pittsburgh falls short and goes all-in on another run with Roethlisberger, retaining Smith-Schuster could be a priority.

    It would likely take Smith-Schuster agreeing to a team-friendly deal for a return to happen, but in terms of fit, there's nowhere better for him to be. And another big year with Big Ben would only further increase his market value.     

4. Miami Dolphins

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Arguably the worst team in the NFL at the start of last season, the Miami Dolphins are on the rise in 2020. They're 6-3, have won three straight with rookie Tua Tagovailoa starting under center and have a real chance of winning the AFC East.

    A significant spending spree during the offseason helped set the stage for this success. Miami brought in players like cornerback Byron Jones, edge-rusher Emmanuel Ogbah and tackle Ereck Flowers.

    The Dolphins, with a projected $37.6 million in cap space, could be poised to spend again this offseason. Could Smith-Schuster be part of their 2021 haul? Absolutely.

    The team has talented receivers in DeVante Parker and Preston Williams (when healthy), but it could use another proven pass-catcher to help bolster its 26th-ranked passing attack.

    Smith-Schuster's experience and reliability could be a boon. He's catching 77.1 percent of his targets this season, and he's been a terrific chain-mover. Thirty-four of his 54 receptions have been for first downs or touchdowns.

    The Arizona Cardinals acquired DeAndre Hopkins in a trade during the offseason to help Kyler Murray in his second pro campaign. While Smith-Schuster isn't as dominant a No. 1 receiver as Hopkins, he could still aid in Tagovailoa's development and be a perfect go-to target.         

3. Washington Football Team

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    While Miami hopes that Tagovailoa is its answer under center, the Washington Football Team doesn't appear to have its quarterback of the future on its roster. Head coach Ron Rivera pulled the plug on 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins after four starts this season, and the 36-year-old Alex Smith probably isn't a long-term solution.

    While making a run in the weak NFC East is still a possibility, it's just as likely that Washington, at 2-7, will find itself in the running for a high draft pick and a new quarterback prospect. The last thing the team can do, though, is hand over this receiving corps to another young signal-caller.

    Washington has a top-tier wideout in Terry McLaurin, but Cam Sims is second on the team among wideouts with a mere 225 receiving yards in nine games. Yes, poor quarterback play early in the season hurt the overall production of the receiving corps, but a lack of receiving talent also hurt said quarterback play.

    Would Haskins have fared better with a receiver like Smith-Schuster in the lineup? We'll probably never know, but the team could add him for its next quarterback.

    While chasing big-name free agents hasn't always worked out well for Washington, Smith-Schuster could be a perfect 2021 target. As previously mentioned, he has the skill set to aid a young signal-caller, and Washington should have the cap space to sign him.

    It is projected to have $51.2 million in cap room, and it wouldn't be a shock to see Washington outbid the Dolphins for his services.    

2. New England Patriots

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    John Munson/Associated Press

    We don't know whether the New England Patriots will have Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham or a quarterback-to-be-named under center in 2021. What we do know is that the Patriots are lacking offensive weapons and need an upgrade at the receiver position. 

    While the receiving corps in Miami and Washington could use help, New England's is even more lackluster. Jakobi Meyers leads the Patriots with just 353 receiving yards this year. 

    Adding Smith-Schuster could give New England's quarterback a reliable and proven pass-catcher. His prowess in the slot could prove to be extra valuable, as there's a good chance that longtime slot star Julian Edelman won't be back next season.

    Edelman is under contract through 2021. However, Edelman is 34, injured and will have just $2.7 million in dead money on his contract after this season, meaning he can be released without a huge financial hit.

    The Patriots have shown in the past that they are willing to spend big in free agency—they inked cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal in 2017—and they should have the cap space to chase a wideout like Smith-Schuster, with nearly $68.4 million in projected cap space.         

1. New York Jets

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    There's no telling who will be under center when the New York Jets kick off their 2021 season.

    The team could bring back veteran Joe Flacco, who's set to hit free agency, or give 2018 first-round pick Sam Darnold another shot. However, if the winless Jets remain winless for another seven weeks, there's a good chance it'll be current Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

    Lawrence has been pegged as a can't-miss prospect and future first overall pick since he burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2018. If the Jets land him, they should have their long-term answer.

    What they won't have is a strong supporting cast. Jamison Crowder has been a solid contributor, and rookie Denzel Mims has shown promise. But New York is severely lacking in receiver talent.

    Adding Smith-Schuster could help fix that. While he may not be the 1,400-plus-yard receiver he was in 2018—playing opposite Antonio Brown benefited him tremendously—he has the talent and the mentality to be New York's new No. 1 receiver.

    "I'm hoping the ball comes my way, I'm praying the ball comes my way. Just because I want to make a play," Smith-Schuster said recently, per ESPN's Brooke Pryor.

    It feels unlikely that head coach Adam Gase will be around for the Lawrence era, assuming the Jets are still winless down the stretch, and the new regime will likely want to bring in its own players.

    Armed with a projected $83.3 million in cap space, the Jets are in arguably the best position of any receiver-needy team to land Smith-Schuster.

                                               

    *Cap and contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.