Could JuJu Smith-Schuster bounce back and earn a contract with the Steelers?

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA - DECEMBER 15: JuJu Smith-Schuster #19 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before the game against the Buffalo Bills at Heinz Field on December 15, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA - DECEMBER 15: JuJu Smith-Schuster #19 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before the game against the Buffalo Bills at Heinz Field on December 15, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) /

With JuJu entering the final year of his rookie deal and with him coming off of a bad season, fans have to wonder if 2020 will be his last with the Steelers

After an extraordinarily bad season, many Steelers fans are wondering about JuJu Smith-Schuster’s long-term future in Pittsburgh. These rumors exploded during the draft with the rumors that Smith-Schuster was being shopped to the 49ers as well as the Steelers selecting Chase Claypool with their top pick. With the Smith-Schuster entering a contract year, will this be his last season with the Steelers? Even more so, does he deserve a new contract?

The tweet above categorizes the most receiving stats for a player before the age of 23 and located at the third spot is Smith-Schuster, behind Josh Gordan and Hall of Famer Randy Moss. Looking over this list as a whole though, most of these names have become some of the best in the league. All of that considered, Smith-Schuster sitting at number three is an indication of his immense talent.

Stats aren’t the only thing though, as there is a certain expectation from a starting WR when he steps on the field. No matter the look or the talent around him, he is a treat to get the ball and make a big play. Smith-Schuster wasn’t that last year, as he struggled to put up consistent numbers all year.

Part of this was due to injury, as Smith-Schuster missed four games last season with a knee injury. While it is a cheap excuse to say the reason he struggled last year was only due to his injury, there was some noticeable lack of burst in his late-season game. No, this wasn’t an effect all year, but considering Smith-Schuster is a WR that wins with good route running and quickness over pure speed, a knee injury would logically be damaging to his ability to play.

Think back to his amazing year two years ago; he was a threat all over the field and was constantly making plays. Yes, this was next to Antonio Brown, but he still proved he could be a true starter in the league.

This is where the argument heats up though, as the main argument for letting Smith-Schuster walk is because he was only that good because of Ben Roethlisberger throwing to him and due to Brown attracting all of the coverage. This is a flimsy argument though, and when looking at the stats, have little standing.

Looking at Smith-Schuster’s estimated 16 game stat totals without Roethlisberger (ignoring his week one and filling in his weeks he missed injured with his average), his stat line would be around 53 rec, 690 yards, and 4-5 TDs. No, these numbers aren’t good, but it can prove how bad the offense can get without their signal-caller in.

Go back to 2015 when Roethlisberger missed four games with an injury and the duo of Michael Vick and Landry Jones became the starter. Brown posted a miserable stat line of 17 rec, 235 yards, and 0 TDs. Extrapolate that over a full season, and Brown would have posted an estimated 68 rec, 940 yards, and 0 TDs. Those aren’t number one WR stats either, and it points to the value that having a future Hall of Fame QB has.

Looking at those numbers though, Brown still had more receptions and yards than Smith-Schuster. I’m not saying Smith-Schuster is better than a prime Brown, what I am saying is that any WR who loses that quality of QB will see their stats suffer. Just because he had a down year last year doesn’t mean Smith-Schuster can’t be a starter for the Steelers.

Considering this is his contract year though, it will be a make or break year for him. Assuming all goes well and Roethlisberger bounces back, Smith-Schuster will be surrounded by quality options that should give him a chance to shine. If he can bounce back, fully expect him to be a Steeler in 2021 (through a contract or a franchise tag).

What would a successful year look like for Smith-Schuster? He doesn’t need a Brown-like season, but his stats need to be steady. Ideally, his floor for a good year should be 90 rec, 1125 yards (12.5 ypc), and 6 TDs. Those numbers would put him in the top 20 at the position and could even push him into the top 15. These numbers would also be his second-best season, coming second only to his sophomore season.

Another thing to consider is the lack of stability at the WR position. After four consecutive years of adding a 2nd/3rd round WR, the Steelers have an extraordinarily deep group at the position. Letting Smith-Schuster walk next year leaves them thin at the position again. As well, with all of their starters still on rookie contracts, investing a little money in the situation isn’t a bad idea. Unless Smith-Schuster struggles again, he should be with the team long term.

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Fans shouldn’t be overacting to how he was last year. While 2019 was a bad year for Smith-Schuster, he played without a starting QB and was injured through most of the latter half of the season. With Roethlisberger healthy and Smith-Schuster in a prime spot to succeed, expect a bounce-back year. If he can put up solid numbers like before, there is little question he will be in a Steelers uniform come next year.