As the NFL opens the window for the legal tampering period on Monday, the top free agents will have several options while on the market despite the depressed salary cap. Pro Bowl wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster fits into that group.
The Athletic's Ed Bouchette believes Smith-Schuster has the experience to lead a young receiving corps, but the demand for him will price the Steelers out of range to re-sign him.
"Call it Young Money II, a follow-up to those days of 2010 and 2011 when the brat pack of receivers included Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. What that group had that this one does not was a veteran leader in Hines Ward. He was at the tail-end of his career but could still show the way for the youngsters. Smith-Schuster could have been that player but, alas, his market price will be too rich for the Steelers."
Pittsburgh has enough depth at wide receiver to field a solid group without Smith-Schuster.
In 2020, Diontae Johnson led the team in receiving yards (923). As a rookie, Chase Claypool had a strong campaign, scoring 11 total touchdowns. Going forward, the coaching staff can expand James Washington's role in three wide receiver sets.
Yet the Steelers will at least monitor Smith-Schuster's situation. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport (h/t SteelerNation.com), they've kept an open line of communication with him, but he'll assess his market value:
Smith-Schuster will likely need time to weigh his options. According to John Clayton of 710 ESPN Seattle, the Las Vegas Raiders, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots will show some level of interest in the four-year veteran.
The Raiders may fall out of the running for Smith-Schuster if his price rises above $16 million per year. According to Vincent Bonsignore of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the team views wideout Nelson Agholor as a priority on its free-agency agenda.
"The first priority is bringing Agholor back, and given the cost-effectiveness in doing so he appears to be the best bet," Bonsignore wrote.
If Vegas sticks to plan A at wide receiver, New England and Miami could go through a bidding battle for Smith-Schuster. Based on the depth charts, the Patriots need him more, and they have enough money to satisfy his contract demands.
According to Rapoport, Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman's 2021 season status remains unclear as he recovers from knee surgery. Per NFL Network's Mike Garafolo (h/t Kevin Patra), teams have inquired about N'Keal Harry. Jakobi Meyers could go into the 2021 campaign as New England's lead receiver.
With $69.3 million in cap space, the Patriots can sign Smith-Schuster to a lucrative long-term deal, though New England can also take a look at free-agent wideout Kenny Golladay, who has a Pro Bowl on his resume along with two 1,000-plus yard receiving seasons. Either way, the Patriots will likely acquire a pass-catcher because of their question marks at the wideout position.
If Smith-Schuster prefers a stronger supporting cast, he may look elsewhere, though. The Dolphins have a high-potential but unproven quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa. Cam Newton re-signed with the Patriots following his worst statistical season as a passer, throwing for 2,657 yards, eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Smith-Schuster's list of options will likely go beyond just a few teams, but he's already a popular name in the AFC East. Back in February, ESPN's Jeremy Fowler listed the New York Jets as the best fit for the talented wideout and dropped a juicy rumor in his analysis.
"The Jets are taking a look at Smith-Schuster and Will Fuller V at the top of the market," Fowler wrote.
Going into free agency, Gang Green has $68.4 million in cap space, which means New England could have a strong competitor for one of its top targets on the market.
Team cap-space figures courtesy of Over the Cap.