(Photo by Don Emmert/Getty Images)
JuJu Smith-Schuster to no surprise is likely on his way out of Pittsburgh. He made a social media post today that indicated he knows the writing is on the wall.
The Steelers just simply don't have the cap space to sign Smith-Schuster. They are cash-strapped with around $5 million in cap space currently and Smith-Schuster is going to command probably $16 million on the open market.
The cap going down almost $16 million from last year because of lost revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic certainly didn't help the cause, but the Steelers tend to not give second contracts to wide receivers. Since 1993 when free agency started, the Steelers have given just two receivers second contracts -- Hines Ward and Antonio Brown.
The Steelers have been in this predicament before, however. They've had to replace the likes of Plaxico Burress, Antwaan Randle El, Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown before, and now it looks like they'll have to do the same with Smith-Schuster.
Minus Smith-Schuster, the Steelers have a young and talented wide receiving corps as it is with Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington. The Steelers are also the best in the league at drafting receivers and they should select another one in this year's draft, probably in the fourth or fifth round. Kevin Colbert also probably drafted Claypool in the second round last year knowing that they'll most likely lose Smith-Schuster via free agency in 2021.
While it wasn't clear at the time, teams knew last April that there was a good possibility that stadiums wouldn't be at full capacity due to the pandemic, and as result, it would have an effect on the salary cap. The cap was expected to go up around $10 million from last year's number of $198.2 million, but instead, it's down around $16 million at $182.5 million.
Teams build their roster years in advance expecting the cap to rise every year, and no one expected a global pandemic that would gash the league's revenue. The Steelers will also eventually have to pay big-time contracts to T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Devin Bush could be down the road as well.
Smith-Schuster wasn't as productive without Brown on the other side as well the last two years. He displayed that he's more of a No. 2 than a No. 1, which is fine. That doesn't mean he's a bad player. But he's not worth overpaying for. Granted, he didn't have Ben Roethlisberger throwing him the ball in 2019, minus all but six quarters. But even in 2020, he averaged only 8.6 yards per reception while hauling in 97 receptions. Maybe that was because of Randy Fichtner's dink-and-dunk offense, but still, that's just not good enough.
He just didn't look like the same receiver without Brown. It wasn't the same as 2018 when he had 111 receptions for 1,426 yards (12.8 average) and seven touchdowns. That's why the Steelers are not giving in and paying him $16 million per year annually. It will be a tough loss, no doubt. I'm sure Roethlisberger isn't happy about it. But it's a tough business and the Steelers have to do what's best for them. Smith-Schuster will get his payday, and deservingly so, but the Steelers like they've always done when it comes to receivers will find a replacement.