By: Morgan Urtso, @morganurtso
Cap space? Never heard of her. And neither have the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The upcoming off-season will be no different, as head coach Mike Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert can’t seem to shake the stage-5 clinger that is the now $180 million NFL salary cap. Along with it comes a slew of problems, as the Steelers are now $23 million over the cap after today’s retirement announcement from tight end Vance McDonald cleared $5.2 million. As it stands, Pittsburgh is in a better position today than they were yesterday, but nowhere near able to sign all of the free agents we want to retain tomorrow.
I’ve had this conversation a million times over the past few months. Salary cap this, salary cap that. I’m over it. She’s rude and annoying and a major buzzkill. Regardless, she’s not necessarily the bane of our existence, and you shouldn’t take her at face value. We are a few restructures, trades, and inevitable retirements away from handling our business and retaining the guys we want to put on the field next season.
One of those guys needs to be JuJu Smith-Schuster.
If you’re going to argue against this by referencing his 100-yard games without Antonio Brown (or lack there of), his yards after catch, or his deep threat ability, stand down. I’m not interested in any of that, and I hate (love) to break it to you, but the Steelers aren’t either. They knew what they were getting when they drafted the kid – he was never drafted to be WR1, so the automatic rebuttal that he isn’t putting up WR1 stats and thus has no value on this team is a moot, and quite honestly tired, point. Beyond that, the significance Smith-Schuster has on this team weighs in much heavier than any singular stat will capably determine.
On a team with the worst overall drop rate in the league, Smith-Schuster’s plays on adjusted catchable targets are among the top in the league. In fact, he caught 75.8% of his total targets all year (128), clocking in at 4th in the league among receivers with over 80 receptions. He trailed ONLY Davante Adams (77.2% on 149 targets), Stefon Diggs (76.5% on 166 targets), and Cole Beasley (76.6% on 107 targets). Beasley, a 2nd-team All-Pro selection for the 2020 season, caught 15 less passes and had 5 less touchdowns than Smith-Schuster. Meanwhile, Diggs caught 30* more passes with one less touchdown.
While I’m not arguing that any receiver should be paid on catch rate alone, this is where my point comes into play. Smith-Schuster caught those passes when we most needed them. He moves the sticks. He’s physical. He fights for every single yard on that field and isn’t afraid to throw his body around. He was never meant to be a number one, and he knows this. We have potential star receivers in Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson, and unlike he-who-shall-not-be-named, Smith-Schuster celebrates their victories. He is arguably the most capable, reliable and complementary number two in the league, and I cannot understate that kind of player’s worth. I’m not going to make the Hines Ward comparison like some, because they play vastly different games in chief respects, but they bring similar elements to the team that numbers cannot track. His joy and passion for the game, for the team, and for Pittsburgh is special.
Smith-Schuster has been vocal about his desire to remain in Pittsburgh for the long term. He has spoken publicly about his willingness to accept a contract that the Steelers front office offers him even if it clocks in at less than other offers he may receive. Ben Roethlisberger and Tomlin have both been adamant and outspoken in their belief that #19 should stay in Pittsburgh because he is, verbatim, “the heart of this team.”
So, Steeler Nation, tell me why on earth half of you will die on this hill for the desire to rip out this team’s heart?
Because of TikTok? Really? Ok Donald.
I am unamused.
The fanbase is staunchly divided on this, and I see it daily. People calling for Smith-Schuster’s head for one reason or another – none of them valid – while others (me) are willing to throw hands at any given moment for #19. So knowing that, I’ll leave you with this: players all over the league have been given passes, for decades, for much worse than a little trash talk and dancing on social media. That’s a fact that I refuse to ignore. And just because he doesn’t carry himself like the inimitable Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve to be here, too.
I say this lovingly: grow up, Peter Pans. JuJu stays.