When JuJu Smith-Schuster joined the Kansas City Chiefs in free agency last offseason, many fans and pundits had high expectations for the former Pittsburgh Steelers second-round draft pick. After an up-and-down campaign in Andy Reid’s offense, will the 26-year-old wideout return to KC in 2023, or will he look to catch passes for another NFL team?
Will the Kansas City Chiefs Consider Bringing Back JuJu Smith-Schuster?
Back in 2018, Smith-Schuster was seen as one of the league’s most exciting up-and-coming wide receivers as he piled up gaudy stats across from then-Steelers teammate Antonio Brown. Due to a combination of injuries and declining play from QB Ben Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster never quite lived up to his post-sophomore campaign hype in Pittsburgh.
After joining the Chiefs in free agency last offseason on a modest deal, many fans — especially those in the fantasy football sphere — thought this might be the year we would see the former USC Trojan return to his early-career statistical heights, especially given the lack of other proven players in Kansas City’s WR room.
And while Smith-Schuster compiled the second-best single-season receiving yards total of his career, he ultimately failed to reach 1,000 yards for the fifth time in six seasons despite catching passes from arguably the best quarterback in the NFL. JuJu appeared in 16 games with the Chiefs, starting 14, and hauled in 78 of 101 targets for 933 yards and three scores.
That said, he was the team’s most productive wide receiver — by far. Though none of the team’s WRs came close to matching the team’s top pass catcher, superstar TE Travis Kelce, in production, Smith-Schuster racked up over 250 yards more than the team’s next-most productive wideout, Marquez Valdes-Scantling (687).
In a revamped, post-Tyreek Hill offense, Reid and Patrick Mahomes relied far more on spreading the ball around (Kelce notwithstanding), leading to eight different pass catchers reaching 250 receiving yards or more on the season. Those players include Kelce (1,338), Smith-Schuster, RB Jerick McKinnon (512), Valdes-Scantling, WR Justin Watson (315), TE Noah Gray (299), WR Mecole Hardman (297), and WR Skyy Moore (250).
Reid and the front office may balk at the idea of paying Smith-Schuster high-end dollars on the open market, knowing that the offense cannot just get by, but excel without allocating buckets of money to the wide receiver position. And after taking a discount to catch passes from Mahomes and reset his value, Smith-Schuster may be hesitant to forego the chance at a large contract.
So where will Smith-Schuster’s value fall in free agency, and might the Chiefs consider matching his financial aspirations?
JuJu Smith-Schuster Contract Considerations
Smith-Schuster signed a one-year, $3.76 million deal with Kansas City last offseason. According to sports contract website Spotrac.com, his market value in free agency is projected at roughly $14.6 million per season at an estimated four-year, $58.67 million deal.
Spotrac compares JuJu’s potential contract to those of veterans Robbie Anderson ($14.75 million per year from the Carolina Panthers), Allen Robinson II ($15.5 million per year from the Los Angeles Rams), and Hunter Renfrow ($16.16 million per year from the Las Vegas Raiders).
As for the Chiefs’ salary cap situation, the team is currently set to have just over $14 million in cap space in the coming offseason before any roster cuts are made, a position that puts them just inside the top half of the league.
That said, Mahomes’ gargantuan contract will have substantial salary cap ramifications starting this offseason. So the team will have to be careful in where it chooses to allocate long-term money going forward.
Smith-Schuster’s Market Value
A contract in line with Spotrac’s projected value would place Smith-Schuster just inside the top 30 of the league’s highest-paid wideouts. Frankly, that seems about right, considering his recent production, but the dearth of top-tier wideouts set to hit the open market and the impending rise of the salary cap could inflate his asking price.
Smith-Schuster aside, the other top names set to be free agents at the position include Allen Lazard, Jakobi Meyers, A.J. Green, Mecole Hardman, Mack Hollins, Parris Campbell, Darius Slayton, DJ Chark, Jarvis Landry, Sammy Watkins, Sterling Shepard, and Nelson Agholor — not exactly a murderer’s row of elite options.
That list basically comprises some mid-tier WR2s and WR3s and over-the-hill veterans. As one of the top names on the market, Smith-Schuster may have the leverage to negotiate a more lucrative deal. But will KC acquiesce in order to keep him in town? The state of the team’s depth chart heading into 2023 may impact that decision.
Chiefs Depth Chart, Options at WR
Entering the offseason, KC has Valdes-Scantling, 2022 trade acquisition Kadarius Toney, and 2022 second-round draft pick Skyy Moore as the team’s top three options at wide receiver. 2017 first-round pick John Ross and 2022 undrafted free agent pickups Ty Fryfogle and Justyn Ross are also under contract.
Though the Chiefs will certainly be hoping for a second-year leap from Moore and additional contributions from a hopefully-healthy Toney, it’s likely that general manager Brett Veach will be looking to add to the group.
It stands to reason that at least one of Smith-Schuster and fellow impending Chiefs free agent WRs Watson and Hardman will be offered a deal to return. But Smith-Schuster, as the one who’s demonstrated the highest ceiling of the group, will likely be the most expensive. Watson is the best blocker of the trio, while Hardman is the only one who was actually drafted by Veach and Reid.
Given the fact that Smith-Schuster is likely hoping to cash in on a long-term deal with substantial guaranteed money for the first time in his career, it’s likely that KC lets him test the open market.
However, if JuJu doesn’t find what he’s looking for from other teams around the league and Kansas City is less than impressed with the rest of their options in free agency, Smith-Schuster could realistically find himself back with Mahomes and the Chiefs for another year.