While I did not like the selection of wideout Chase Claypool; I understood the pick for the long-term. While Claypool will need an injury or two to hit the wide receiver corps to see substantial snaps in 2020, his path to significant playing time after this season would be clearer with the departure of JuJu Smith-Schuster after the season.
Why would JuJu leave after his contract expires after the 2020 season? Easy, he will either struggle this season, like he did in 2019, and the team will low ball him, or he will return to his 2018 form and price himself out of the Steelers price range.
With the team up against the salary cap ($5.7 million) and Smith-Schuster coming off a horrendous season filled with poor quarterback play, drops, a costly fumble, and injuries, the team is unlikely to open up their wallet during the offseason. With a cap hit of $1.33 million, the former second-round pick is cheap. With any contract extension, no doubt his cap number would increase. The team would have to get very creative to make cap room to accommodate any substantial contract for the 6’ 1” 215 pounder. It is just hard to picture the Steelers making any contract offer that would satisfy the team and Smith-Schuster this offseason.
What would an offer by the team even look like?
In 2018, at the ripe age of 22, Smith-Schuster made the Pro Bowl while hauling in 111 balls for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. The reception total was good enough for seventh in the league and only 14 behind league leader Michael Thomas. Because of the myriad of items I listed above, his numbers plummeted to 42-552-3 over 12 games.
Is he worth a Pro Bowl level contract? Six wide receivers will make over $18 million in 2020 and no doubt Smith-Schuster will bypass any contract offer hoping to rebound to the 2018 level of play. Why would he want to take anything less, especially when you compare him to Amari Cooper? Cooper signed a massive five-year contract worth up to $100 million in March. That contract includes $40 million fully guaranteed and another $20 million guaranteed for injury. (Guaranteed money in Smith-Schuster’s next contract could be a sticking point, but that is a topic for another time.) Over the past three seasons, JuJu has more touchdowns, receptions and yards than Cooper. With the new CBA signed and the salary cap expected to explode in 2022 and beyond, no way Smith-Schuster does anything but bet on himself for another monster season.
If the former USC Trojan has another dismal season, it is unlikely that the Steelers would offer him anything substantial for a contract after the 2020 season. That would leave JuJu options to take a prove it deal, or a team desperate enough to offer him a large contract.
What happens if he has another season like he did in 2018? With only 38 players under contract for next season, seven other starters not under contract for 2021, and $28 million under the cap, the team may not afford the franchise tag or a bidding war with teams flush with cap space. (18 teams with over $50 million in cap space in 2021.)
I hope No. 19 has another season like he did in his second season with the Steelers and Steeler Nation will just have to deal with those ramifications after the season. But any hopes of getting a contract extension done during the offseason I put very close to nil.