While the Pittsburgh Steelers have been busier than ever in free agency, signing six outside free agents to contracts and bringing back several of their own—with more work to be done, of course—the reality is that they have not been able to retain everybody. Not even everybody that they hoped to retain.
The biggest name on that so far relatively short list is, of course, sixth-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who signed a one-year, incentive-laden contract that has a surprisingly modest base value, but which could be worth over $10 million. During his appearance at the annual league meetings today, head coach Mike Tomlin confirmed that they were interested in retaining him.
“We were in discussions with he and his agent”, Tomlin confirmed when he was asked by Brooke Pryor of ESPN if they tried to retain him this offseason, “but, obviously, JuJu chose to go to Kansas City, and we wish him well. We’re appreciative of the time we were able to spend together”.
A second-round draft pick in 2017, Smith-Schuster had a breakout rookie season that year with 58 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. He followed that up with a Pro Bowl year in 2018, catching 111 passes for 1,426 yards, and was seen as one of the hottest young up-and-comers at the position at the time.
His story gets much more complicated from there, but in the end, he faced a depleted free-agency market last year that saw him return for one final year in Pittsburgh a year ago, which itself was heavily truncated due to a shoulder injury he suffered in game five.
Not only did he leave in free agency, but so did James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud from the wide receiver room, leaving a vacuum of talent behind Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. The most notable remaining names are Cody White, Anthony Miller, and Steven Sims, which illustrates the clear deficiency in his absence.
“He is a football player first and a wide receiver second. He embraces all components of the game. He has a physicality to his play. He brings a can-do spirit daily”, Tomlin said in talking about what Smith-Schuster brings to the table”.
While Johnson has emerged as a Pro Bowl-level talent himself, Claypool took a step backward last season following a promising rookie year. One thing that is obvious is that the Steelers’ wide receiver room needs to be replenished—perhaps in ways the team does not yet fully understand.
“I don’t know what we lose yet” with Smith-Schuster’s departure, Tomlin told Pryor, “because we’re still in the process of putting our group together. The leadership can be new, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be deficient in any way”.
Wide receiver, at least for depth, is one of the Steelers’ top needs heading into the draft now, but it feels likely they will also add another veteran at some point in the process as well. They may not have enough draft picks to spare to draft two receivers.