INDIANAPOLIS — The Pittsburgh Steelers have a number of decisions to make about their own pending free agents before the contact period begins in two weeks, and for the second consecutive offseason, the future of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster hangs in the balance.
Smith-Schuster hit free agency for the first time in 2021, didn’t find a deal elsewhere that interested him and returned to Pittsburgh on a one-year deal. The idea was for him to prove his value on the one-year deal while the salary cap increased back to normal levels for 2022.
But Smith-Schuster suffered a devastating shoulder injury early in the season that derailed that entire plan. Now it’s not clear what his value will be around the league. Meanwhile, the Steelers are entering the 2022 offseason with a war chest of cap space after needing to cut players to just get complaint most of the last few seasons.
Could that be setting up another return for Smith-Schuster in Pittsburgh?
To hear general manager Kevin Colbert tell it Tuesday, that’s certainly a possibility. Colbert said that Smith-Schuster’s decision to rehab his injury and return before the end of the season when he could have just called it a year impressed the team’s leadership.
“JuJu did a great comeback from the shoulder injury that he suffered and much to our surprise, he was available to us in the season in the playoff game,” Colbert said. We commend him for doing that, for putting his free agency thoughts aside and just trying to help us win a playoff game. We really take that into account and give him credit for having done that.”
For a player that is hitting free agency for a second time, Smith-Schuster is exceptionally young, having entered the NFL at just 20 years of age. Now 25, he’s seen as a leader of the Steelers’ wide receivers in addition to a talented player in his own right, and should be expected to play through the end of a free agent contract with his athletic prime intact.
“You think he’s 32 years old and he’s (25),” Colbert said. “He’s that veteran in that very young room. … JuJu has been a great player for us. He’s still a young player, as well, so we’ll definitely take that look.”
Fellow Steelers wide receivers Ray-Ray McCloud and James Washington are also hitting free agency, so that position group could be in line for a good bit of turnover heading into 2022. A trusted veteran presence like Smith-Schuster could certainly be the kind of player the Steelers could see themselves spending their cap space on.