Unfortunately for Pittsburgh Steelers fans, the day they have been dreading for a long time is quickly approaching. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, a player loved by the city, will hit free agency in 2021. With cap space constraints and several players to make decisions on, where could Smith-Schuster end up playing in 2021?
The future for JuJu Smith-Schuster could not have looked better
If there is one thing the Pittsburgh Steelers do well, it’s finding and developing wide receiver talent. Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and now Chase Claypool.
Smith-Schuster quickly established himself as one of the NFL’s future superstars. In his rookie season, Smith-Schuster caught 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. His 2018 season blew it out of the water. While paired with Antonio Brown, he was incredible on the Steelers’ offense. Smith-Schuster saw an astounding 166 targets in his second year — fourth in the NFL and only two behind Brown. He hauled in 111 of those passes for 1,426 receiving yards (5th) and seven touchdowns.
Between Brown and Smith-Schuster, the pair combined for 215 receptions, 2,723 yards, and 22 touchdowns. Together, the duo made history. Their 2018 season together was only the second time post-merger that a team had two receivers catch 100+ passes and each have over 1,000 receiving yards. It first happened in 1995 for the Detroit Lions with Brett Perriman and Herman Moore. Then again, 10 years later, by the duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in 2005.
Can JuJu Smith-Schuster be a team’s WR1 in free agency?
In the two season’s post-Brown, Smith-Schuster has never been able to recapture his sophomore season’s dominance.
Part of this comes to a lost 2019 season that was led by Mason Rudolph. The Steelers offense was a shell of itself and could not sustain drives. With Ben Roethlisberger “healthy”, things have been better. Smith-Schuster caught 97 of 128 targets for 831 yards and nine touchdowns in 16 games. However, he was second on the team in targets and yards to Diontae Johnson and fifth in yards per reception.
Playing mainly as a slot WR on the Steelers offense, he saw a 19.5% target share in 2020. He is smart. He knows how to get into zones, sit down, and use his body to give a QB a reliable target to throw to, even in tight coverage.
If he can be a team’s WR1 remains to be seen. However, he will be paid like one, as JuJu Smith-Schuster will likely bring a high price tag in free agency in 2021.
Where are some possible locations that JuJu Smth-Schuster could land during free agency in 2021?
Regardless of where JuJu Smith-Schuster lands in 2021, he will have plenty of teams calling his phone trying to land the former USC WR in free agency.
Could the Steelers re-sign JuJu Smith-Schuster in free agency?
The Steelers love him. Head coach Mike Tomlin loves him. The city loves him, and so do the owners who write the checks. Smith-Schuster has made it known that he wants to stay with the team too. Earlier in the season, during an appearance on the ‘All Things Covered’ podcast, Smith-Schuster expressed how sometimes the grass is not always greener.
“I would love to be a Pittsburgh Steeler for life. I’ve talked to other teammates who are on other organizations and it doesn’t really work out for them very well. Just because they’re offering more money, the grass is not always greener on the other side. I kind of like where I’m at with the grass I’m on. It’s very green. I’ve already established my brand, myself in this organization.”
He did it again, this time on his Instagram account. Where he posted a picture of the city with the caption, “No, cap, I wouldn’t mind staying here another 4 years.”
The issue will be the salary cap to pull this off unfortunately
The Steelers are going to be facing cap issues in 2021. Currently, they are projected to be over the salary cap by $21.789 million, according to Over The Cap.
Over the Cap also estimates the 2021 salary cap will be $176 million, a decrease of $22.2 million or 11.2 percent from 2020. There are also other guys needing to be paid. Bud Dupree was playing on a franchise tag in 2020 and is due a new contract. CB Joe Haden, DL Cameron Heyward, LT Alejandro Villanueva, RB James Conner are all going to be free agents. LB T.J. Watt is also entering his contract season, and they need to lock him up before the season ends.
All in all, the Steelers have depth at WR to absorb the loss of JuJu Smith-Schuster and are cash strapped. Could they get it done? Absolutely, but it might not be the best long-term decision.
The Miami Dolphins could land JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021’s free agency period
The Dolphins are ahead of schedule in their rebuild. Miami almost made the playoffs and have two first-round picks in 2021, including the third pick from Houston.
The Dolphins believe Tua Tagovailoa is the QB of the future, and the team will have a new offensive coordinator following the resignation of OC Chan Gailey.
Miami needs weapons on the outside. DeVante Parker is okay but at times cannot get separation. Preston Williams, while seemingly talented, can’t stay healthy. Outside of those two, they lack another experienced WR option.
It’s likely they add one of the talented receivers in this year’s draft class and could bring in JuJu Smith-Schuster as well via free agency. With the third pick, the Dolphins could draft Ja’Marr Chase from LSU and have Smith-Schuster play the slot role while Chase works the perimeter. They would have two stud pass catchers, both under the age of 24, and could be together for another four years. The salary cap is also not an issue as the Dolphins have a projected cap space of $33.36 million heading into 2021.
New England desperately needs receiver help
Few teams in the NFL are more devoid of offensive talent than the New England Patriots. N’Keal Harry is not developing, while Julian Edelman is consistently banged up and 34 years old. In 2020, their top receiver was a UDFA from NC State.
Adding JuJu Smith-Schuster in free agency and pairing him with a new QB could help get the Patriots back on track for 2021.
Could JuJu Smith-Schuster head to Las Vegas in 2021’s free agency period?
If Derek Carr is going to succeed, he needs someone to throw to in 2021. Nelson Agholor turned out to be a fantastic one-year signing that benefited both parties. He bet on himself with a one-year contract to play for Jon Gruden for a $910,000 minimum veteran salary and $137,500 signing bonus, producing 48 receptions for 896 yards and eight touchdowns. He won’t come at that price again.
While JuJu Smith-Schuster would be more expensive, he fits the Jon Gruden style of football. He could step in and play a physical, aggressive style of football and work the middle of the field with Darren Waller. He also can get vertical and present a dynamic duo with the speedster Henry Ruggs. Cap space could be an issue, as the Raiders are projected to be over the cap by $7.62 million.
The New York Jets are a natural fit for JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021
The Jets have plenty of money to throw around at $72.59 million currently under the cap. They need a WR1 on their team as well. Jamison Crowder is a capable possession WR but not explosive like Smith-Schuster. The team did select Denzel Mims, but it is too early to decide on him due to injuries and poor offensive play.
The Jets have the second overall pick, and if they choose not to bring back Sam Darnold, Justin Fields is the guy the Jets should select. He will need targets, and adding JuJu Smith-Schuster would be a great addition to an otherwise mediocre locker room. Also, the city fits his personality. Playing in the Big Apple under the bright lights is the perfect place for Smith-Schuster to continue to elevate his personal brand alongside his game on the field.