JuJu Smith-Schuster Landing Spots: Chiefs, Buccaneers, Titans, Eagles make sense for Steelers free agent WR

Where are the potential landing spots for Pittsburgh Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster if he leaves via free agency in 2022?

JuJu Smith-Schuster already took one fascinating turn in free agency last offseason, and now he’s set to be a free agent in 2022. This time around, his stock will be affected by health questions after a shoulder injury sidelined him for the majority of the year. Will the Steelers have any interest in retaining Smith-Schuster, and If not, where are some of his landing spots?

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s free-agent profile

Let’s start with some good news: the Steelers have activated Smith-Schuster from the injured reserve. He is on track to play against the Chiefs in the Wild Card round. It’s a miraculous recovery, as he was expected to miss the rest of the season after going down in Week 5. Smith-Schuster could slightly boost his free-agent appeal with a solid postseason performance. But more importantly, it doesn’t appear he’ll be hampered by injury issues as he meets with teams in a couple of months.

Smith-Schuster entered the NFL at an incredibly young age. As such, he’ll still be one of the youngest free agents available this offseason despite the fact that he’s already signed one non-rookie contract. His career got off to a hot start, as he posted the fourth-most receiving yards (2,343) of any wide receiver through his age-22 campaign. But his production has fallen off in recent years.

Over his first two NFL seasons, Smith-Schuster reeled in 169 receptions at an average of 13.9 yards per reception, which ranked a respectable 34th among WRs during that span. But from 2019-2021, his yards per reception dropped to 9.8 — 114th among wide receivers. His average depth of target — which regularly sat in the 9-yard range at the beginning of his career — was at just 5.5 in 2020 before slightly improving to 6.5 in five games this season.

We know what Smith-Schuster is at this point — a slot receiver who handles short targets and can get a little extra after the catch. That type of role does offer value, especially when someone like Smith-Schuster is playing at his best. But it’s still an open question as to how teams will value him in free agency.

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s landing spots

If the Steelers don’t bring Smith-Schuster back, where could he go? Here are a few destinations that could make sense.

The Kansas City Chiefs had interest in Smith-Schuster last year

The Chiefs were among the teams that attempted to sign Smith-Schuster when he reached free agency in 2021. The Ravens, Jets, and Raiders also expressed interest, but I don’t see those clubs as frontrunners for Smith-Schuster this year. Both the Ravens and Jets added early-round receivers in the 2021 NFL Draft, while Hunter Renfrow won’t be giving up the slot role in Las Vegas any time soon.

But Kansas City still stands out as an excellent fit for Smith-Schuster. While the Chiefs have gotten some decent production out of Byron Pringle and Mecole Hardman as of late, they’re still trying to replace Sammy Watkins. Both Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce had target shares of over 20% this season. As good as KC’s offense is, it’s crying out for a third option.

Hill was in the slot on roughly 50% of his snaps in 2021. He’d have to spend a little more time out wide if the Chiefs signed Smith-Schuster. Kansas City wouldn’t be able to scheme certain looks for Hill on the inside, but their offense could be improved by the presence of another viable pass catcher. It might be time for Andy Reid to text Smith-Schuster more photos of his Super Bowl trophy.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a burgeoning problem at WR

The Super Bowl champions began the year with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown as their starting wide receiver trio. Entering the first round of the playoffs, the Buccaneers are down to Evans and … not a whole lot else.

Godwin tore his ACL in late December, and he’ll be a free agent after playing on the franchise tag in 2021. Even if he comes back on a one-year deal to rebuild his value, will he be ready by Week 1? Sure, Tom Brady can make just about any pass catcher viable, but Tampa Bay needs to address the WR position.

General manager Jason Licht has drafted several mid-round receivers in recent years, including Tyler Johnson and Jaelon Darden. But neither has garnered much playing time in their brief careers, and Johnson hasn’t shown anything while filling in at times this season. If Godwin doesn’t re-sign or isn’t ready by the start of 2022, Smith-Schuster could take over in the slot and give Brady a reliable weapon.

Smith-Schuster would add another element to the Tennessee Titans offense

After acquiring future Hall of Famer Julio Jones over the summer, the Titans expected their passing offense to take a leap in 2021. That didn’t happen. Both Jones and A.J. Brown have struggled to stay on the field. First-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing has proven to be less creative than former play-caller Arthur Smith. Tennessee finished the year 14th in expected points added (EPA) per dropback after ranking third in 2020.

Ryan Tannehill needs a pass catcher he can count on in the short areas of the field. None of the Titans’ tight ends scare opposing defenses, while Derrick Henry’s career-high in receptions is 18. Smith-Schuster could be an affordable salve, which is important given that Tennessee only has $7 million in projected cap space.

The Philadelphia Eagles could pair Smith-Schuster with DeVonta Smith

The Eagles have three first-round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft — No. 15, No. 16, and their own selection that will land somewhere between Nos. 19 and 32. Jalen Hurts did enough during the regular season that Philadelphia should feel confident building around him. After ranking 25th in defensive DVOA (Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric), the Eagles could take a 2020 Panthers-esque approach and use the majority of their draft capital on defensive help.

That would mean Philadelphia needs to boost its offense via free agency. Smith-Schuster would be an upgrade of Quez Watkins in the slot. Watkins has been acceptable, but he’s a former sixth-round pick who only put up 38 yards per game in his second NFL campaign. Smith-Schuster would pair with tight end Dallas Goedert to give Hurts more options over the middle of the field.

Smith-Schuster would help Justin Fields develop with the Chicago Bears

We don’t know who the Bears’ new head coach or general manager will be, so we’re not exactly sure what the team’s offensive scheme will look like in 2022. But we know that whoever takes over in Chicago will need to further develop the connection between Justin Fields and Darnell Mooney.

In his second NFL season, Mooney led the Bears in targets (140), receptions (81), yards (1,005), and receiving touchdowns (4). Allen Robinson, Marquise Goodwin, and Damiere Byrd were Chicago’s next most-targeted wide receivers — all three will be free agents in March. Robinson was once one of the league’s top pass catchers. Yet, he looks to be on the downside of his career as he enters his age-29 season. Goodwin and Byrd are WR4s at best.

Smith-Schuster would make sense for the Bears as a youthful option to pair with Fields and Mooney. Chicago has a lot of needs but no first-round draft pick. What they do have is cap space — roughly $40 million, good for 12th in the NFL. They could sign Smith-Schuster plus someone like Christian Kirk and still have money and draft choices leftover to fix their offensive line.

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