Steelers Get Huge Bargain with JuJu Smith-Schuster Back On 'Prove It' Deal

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMarch 20, 2021

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) catch make a catch during the first half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

It's been a rough few months for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Following a franchise-best 11-0 start in 2020, the Steelers lost four of five to close out the regular season before falling in embarrassing fashion at home to the rival Cleveland Browns in the AFC Wild Card Round.

That thudding conclusion set the stage for what had the looks of a depressing offseason. Longtime starting center Maurkice Pouncey decided to retire after over a decade in the Steel City. With one of the worst salary-cap situations in the NFL, the Steelers headed into the new league year with a number of prominent free agents and little cash with which to pay them.

Sure enough, in the first few days of free agency, the Steelers watched edge-rusher Bud Dupree and cornerback Mike Hilton bolt for the Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals, respectively. But as the first week of free agency wound down, Pittsburgh finally got some good news. One of the team's biggest free agents not only decided to stay, but he did so on a well-below-market deal.

And in spurning larger offers to return to the Steelers, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster got the team a step closer to an opportunity to make one more deep playoff run.

David Richard/Associated Press

After a 2020 season that saw Smith-Schuster pile up 97 catches (on 128 targets) for 831 yards and a career-high nine touchdowns, the 24-year-old has signed a one-year, $8 million deal to return to Pittsburgh that includes a $7 million signing bonus.

It's a contract tailor-made to assist the Steelers with their salary-cap woes—per Field Yates of ESPN, the pact includes four void years in order to spread out that signing bonus. That makes the cap hit in 2021 a more than manageable $2.4 million, with $5.6 million hitting the books in 2022.

That, as they say, is a problem for another day.

After news of the signing hit, Smith-Schuster took to Twitter to tell Steelers fans he never had any intention of departing:

JuJu Smith-Schuster @TeamJuJu

This is my home, they’re gonna need a wrecking ball to take me outta here! PITTSBURGH I LOVE YOU, LET’S GO!!!!! 💛🖤💛🖤 https://t.co/SPFvCLUmFl

It's not a new sentiment. In February, Smith-Schuster made it clear on the Yinzhers podcast (h/t Andy Patton of Trojans Wire) that if given a choice (and the right amount of scratch), he'd prefer to stay right where he is:

"I do want to play for a team that competes for a Super Bowl every year that's in the playoffs, obviously the Steelers are that. I do want to be paid a reasonable price for what I'm worth. I would love to stay with the Steelers, I would love to stay with them, but as of right now, it's kind of just like up in the air, waiting it's like playing chess, waiting to see where the pieces go and from there I'll decide."

It's the scratch that was the issue for the cap-strapped Steelers, and from all indications, Smith-Schuster was fine with taking a hometown discount. According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, Smith-Schuster turned down more money from both Pittsburgh's in-state rival and its biggest rival in the AFC North to remain with the Steelers:

Adam Schefter @AdamSchefter

JuJu Smith-Schuster also turned down more money on a multi-year deal from the Eagles than he took to return to the Steelers, per source. The Eagles’ were a secret suitor. But Smith-Schuster loved Pittsburgh and its fans too much to leave. https://t.co/X8gitZYxwd

You can question the wisdom of that decision after Smith-Schuster managed just 8.6 yards per reception last year—over four fewer yards per grab than any other season. But you can't question Smith-Schuster's loyalty. Or what his return could mean for the Pittsburgh offense.

Yes, Smith-Schuster's yards per reception fell precipitously in 2020. And to date, he hasn't been able to follow up his 111-reception, 1,426-yard explosion in his sophomore campaign three years ago with anything close. It's entirely possible Smith-Schuster will never again eclipse those high-water marks in black and gold.

But among Pittsburgh pass-catchers, only Diontae Johnson had more targets last year than Smith-Schuster's 128. Among players with 50 or more targets, no one on the team came within 12 percentage points of Smith Schuster's catch percentage of 75.8. Johnson may have had more receiving yards than Smith-Schuster, but he also had 10 more drops. Chase Claypool may have averaged more yards per catch, but he was nowhere near as consistent.

Smith-Schuster is Ben Roethlisberger's safety net. If it's 3rd-and-6, when Big Ben drops back to pass, Smith-Schuster is more than likely going to be his first read.

That drop in stats had as much to do with Roethlisberger's 6.3 yards per attempt (29th in the NFL) as Smith-Schuster anyway. And as he showed with a 13/157/1 stat line against Cleveland in that playoff loss, Smith-Schuster is still more than capable of having a huge game.

Now, that safety net will be back in 2021—on the cheap. The Steelers won't have to patch a hole in the wideout corps. Instead, the team can use its minimal remaining cap space and this year's draft picks to address other needs.

And to be clear, there are other needs. With Dupree gone, the pass rush needs a boost opposite T.J. Watt. In addition to Pouncey's retirement, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is a free agent—although a return to Pittsburgh hasn't been ruled out. Hilton's departure and the possibility that cornerback Steven Nelson could be traded leaves substantial work to be done in the secondary.

Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

But Smith-Schuster's return means that at least one of Pittsburgh's potential issues isn't any longer. On some level, it's a reward for the success the Steelers have so long enjoyed on the field and the organizational continuity at the top. Head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert aren't without their faults, but the Steelers have been one of the league's better-run franchises for decades. There is not a ton of organizational drama and even less turnover among coaches and front-office types.

Players look around the league at the chaos in other cities, and suddenly a little less money doesn't seem like a bad idea. Smith-Schuster all but said as much.

The Steelers have their work cut out for them, especially with the Ravens and Browns biting at their heels in the division. No matter how they reload, though, the team's Super Bowl window isn't staying open much longer (if it still is)—not with Roethlisberger nearing the end of the line.

But on Friday, JuJu Smith-Schuster did what he could to keep that window from slamming shut.

And it's the best news the franchise has received since the offseason began.