PITTSBURGH — Grasping one end of a thick, knotted rope, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster dug his feet in and used all of his muscular 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame to pull back as hard as he could. At the other end, though, a 425-pound lion clutched the rope in her mouth and pulled back with ease, controlling the tug-of-war against the NFL wide receiver.
After a few minutes, Smith-Schuster gave into the lion’s power and his end of the rope went slack as he loosened his grip in surrender.
A few days later, the impending free agent posted the video to social media and speculation of a deeper meaning behind the stunt picked up.
Perhaps Smith-Schuster is signing with the Detroit Lions? Maybe he’s in a back-and-forth tug-of-war with the Steelers over his future with the franchise?
Or the best explanation of the post: It’s just JuJu being JuJu.
In all likelihood, there’s not much of a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war between the Steelers and their star wide receiver. Smith-Schuster is hitting free agency for the first time, and while he was a key piece of the offense last year as a reliable third-down target and a gritty player who could muscle through defenders for extra yards, the Steelers don’t historically give second contracts to wide receivers. Only Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have been given second contracts in recent Steelers history.
“I would love to stay in Pittsburgh,” Smith-Schuster said after the season-ending loss to the Browns in the first round of the playoffs. “I built a strong foundation and a strong fan base. I love Coach Tomlin and Coach Ike everybody I’ve been around. They’ve helped change the way I am, I love the game of football and I would love to do it again.”
Earlier this week, Smith-Schuster hinted at a departure, commenting on an Instagram post from offensive lineman Zach Banner about going silent on social media until he got his new contract signed.
“Wish I can get one,” Smith-Schuster wrote, adding three tearful emojis.
— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) February 28, 2021
Even if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger advocates for Smith-Schuster, all signs point to a departure for the fan favorite, leaving behind a room with less personality but plenty of talent.
Without Smith-Schuster, the Steelers will turn to Diontae Johnson, James Washington — who enters the final year of his rookie deal in 2021 — and second-year receiver Chase Claypool. They could also opt to bring back return man and restricted free agent Ray-Ray McCloud.
The trio under contract gives the Steelers plenty of playmakers. Claypool burst on the scene as a rookie with nine touchdowns and 873 receiving yards, and Washington showed a stronger connection with Roethlisberger in the pair’s second full season playing together.
See what happens when JuJu Smith-Schuster attempts to take body shots from Ryan Garcia.
First-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada favored a strong vertical passing game in his college offenses, something that bodes well for Claypool and Washington if Canada implements a similar scheme in Pittsburgh.
While Johnson’s speed can make him a deep threat, he’ll most likely be used in Canada’s signature jet sweeps.
Johnson was Roethlisberger’s favorite target by volume with 144 targets and 88 receptions, but he went through stretches where he was more known for the catches he didn’t make. Assuming he resolves his drop struggles, he’ll be an important piece in executing Canada’s pre-snap movement and disguised plays.
But even with those weapons, the Steelers will still need help absorbing Smith-Schuster’s loss, beginning with identifying the team’s next slot receiver.
If McCloud comes back, his size and speed makes him an obvious candidate to help fill Smith-Schuster’s role in the slot.
The Steelers could still look for help to fill out the wide receiver room with bargain free agents or a late-round draft pick. The Steelers previously tried out former Pitt product Quadree Henderson, who had success running the jet sweep in Canada’s offense, but he was waived before the end of training camp in 2020.
The Steelers could look at adding free agent Nelson Agholor, who had his best season in Las Vegas a year ago with 896 yards and eight touchdowns, but his production could keep his price tag out of reach. If the Steelers opt to look for an inside man in the draft, they could target players like South Carolina’s Shi Smith, Clemson’s Amari Rodgers or Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge. The Steelers, after all, love their MAC products.