Updated: Mar 25
(Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images)
JuJu Smith-Schuster is back with the Steelers for another season after signing a one-year, $8 million deal yesterday. The contract includes a $1 million base salary and a $7 million signing bonus with four void years, so his cap hit this year comes in at just $2.4 million.
Before the start of free agency, Smith-Schuster had a $16.1 million per year market value, according to Spotrac, but the free-agent wide receiver market was really dry and he didn't come close to receiving that figure. Kenny Golladay got paid, however, as the Giants signed him to a four-year, $72 million deal with a max of $76 million with $40 million guaranteed.
According to Taylor Biscotti of the NFL Network, Smith-Schuster signed a 1-year, $8 million deal with the Steelers even though the rival Ravens and Chiefs offered more money. The Ravens offered a 1-year, $9 million deal with $4 million in incentives and the Chiefs offered a one-year, $8 million deal with $3 million in incentives. Smith-Schuster told Biscotti that Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh reached out to him.
Smith-Schuster also turned down more money on a multi-year deal from the Eagles to come back to Pittsburgh, per Adam Schefter of ESPN.
It's clear that teams didn't want to pay Smith-Schuster like a No. 1 wide receiver, even though he wanted to get paid like one.
The fact is, as of right now, Smith-Schuster is more of a No. 2 than a No. wide receiver and hasn't been as productive and consistent of a receiver since Antonio Brown left the team following the 2018 season.
With Brown, Smith-Schuster had 10 games with over 100 yards receiving. Without Brown, Smith-Schuster has produced just three games with over 100 yards receiving. Smith-Schuster was at his best in 2018 when he hauled in 111 receptions for 1,426 yards (12.8 average) and seven touchdowns. He had eight games with over 100 yards receiving in 2018.
His numbers haven't been as good in the last two seasons. He was hampered by injuries and Ben Roethlisberger played all but six quarters until he suffered a season-ending elbow injury. So, I'd give Smith-Schuster a pass for the 2019 season because he had the likes of Mason Rudolph and Devlin "Duck" Hodges throwing him passes.
It wasn't a bad season for Smith-Schuster in 2020 with Roethlisberger back, he led the team in receptions with 97 and had nine touchdowns, but he averaged just 8.6 yards per catch, which ranked 126th in the league.
That's just not good enough. However, a lot of it had to do with former offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner's dink-and-dunk offense, so hopefully with Matt Canada as the offensive coordinator now, Smith-Schuster will be better utilized. We're talking about a wide receiver who has two 97-yard touchdown receptions in his career. He shouldn't be averaging 8.6 yards per catch.
According to Next Gen Stats, Smith-Schuster ran the shortest routes of any wide receiver last season (minimum 300 routes), with an average route depth of 8.3 yards. As a result, Smith-Schuster relied on yards after the catch to gain yardage -- 51.3% of his yards came after the catch, which was fourth among wide receivers, minimum of 75 targets.
Smith-Schuster is great as a slot receiver and isn't afraid to go over the middle and catch a pass in traffic. He's also an incredible blocker. At times last year, he really reminded you of Hines Ward with the way he fought for every yard after making a reception. The offense just can't be so heavily leaned on short quick passes and have it as their identity as they did in 2020 under Fichtner. They need to run the ball better for one, as they ranked dead last in the league in rushing yards per game (84.4) and yards per carry (3.6). But they also need to use more play-action and not have Roethlisberger in the shotgun so much. The offense just became too predictable last season because of it.
According to Michael Lombardi of The Athletic, Roethlisberger, last season was in the shotgun on 573 of his 608 passes. The Steelers also ran a lot of empty sets with four wide receivers on the field in 2020 and Roethlisberger attempted only 34 passes with two receivers on the field last season, according to Lombardi.
"(Roethlisberger) hates playing under center, never wanting to turn his back to the defense, thus eliminating the play-action passes that might help the Steelers’ offense make chunk plays down the field," Lombardi states in his article on The Athletic.
That's what the offense needs to get back to. Running the ball efficiently and utilizing more play-action. With that, Smith-Schuster should become even more productive. He's a talented player and I think he'll flourish in Canada's offensive system. He's already one of the best slot receivers in the league. Since 2017 when lined up in the slot, Smith-Schuster has 195 receptions for 2,393 yards and 19 touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. He ranks fifth in receptions, second in yards and second in touchdowns in the NFL during that span when in the slot.