PITTSBURGH -- Despite more lucrative free-agency offers from the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster opted to stay in Pittsburgh on a one-year deal out of loyalty to the organization -- and to Ben Roethlisberger.
"Staying with my quarterback that I've been playing with for the last four years and the fact that he's coming back for one more year, and the fact that I can have that potential for a one-year deal, just [how the] organization set everything up for me. They pretty much know my body inside and out, on the field and off the field, how I am.
"Don't get me wrong, Patrick Mahomes is a great quarterback and he will be for the next decade, but I think it's just a loyalty to my coaches, my receiver coach and to my quarterback."
After testing free agency in a depressed market as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith-Schuster, 24, signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Steelers in March. Smith-Schuster's contract has four voidable years on the back end to reduce his 2021 cap hit to $2.4 million.
"For me, a couple million -- I get for some people it's different -- but I'm looking at the bigger picture going into next year," Smith-Schuster said. "I already knew if I went to the Ravens, fans would destroy me. ... And then going to the Chiefs, obviously they have a great, great offense and all that. Being able to play with Tyreek [Hill] and Travis [Kelce] and all that.
"But at the end of the day, I've got to do what's best for me, and that's staying home. Knowing my quarterback, knowing my OC, knowing my receiver coach, it just makes it easier on me this year going into next year, that next year's free agency will be a lot better."
For Smith-Schuster, the one-year deal allows him to maximize his value before hitting the market again next season when the salary cap could jump as high as $208.2 million, up from 2021's cap of $182.5 million per team.
"Everything that happened this year was different with the cap being low and everything," Smith-Schuster said. "Next year is obviously a year where the cap will be so much better, so much bigger and knowing that I'll be on the market again, knowing that every team that would want to offer something on the table to what my value is.
"At the end of the day, this year, I've got to go out there, ball out, do what I've got to do and put stuff on tape to make my value even better."
Mostly playing from the slot, Smith-Schuster amassed 831 receiving yards and a career-high nine touchdowns last season, up from a disappointing 2019 campaign during which he was hampered by nagging injuries.
In 2020, Smith-Schuster was Roethlisberger's security blanket, often a third-down target for the veteran quarterback. After signing a new contract himself, Roethlisberger pushed hard for Smith-Schuster's return.
"I felt like I was in his ear and in Coach Tomlin's ear a lot during that process the last 12 or 24 hours of JuJu signing back here," Roethlisberger said. "To have a familiar face and a guy that brings so much to this team. Is there a guy in the NFL that on third-and-medium to short you want the ball in his hands as much as JuJu? I don't know if I can think of one.
The passion he gives to this city and to this team to help us win is awesome. As young as he is, he's the leader of that group."
This year, Smith-Schuster wants to diversify his role in the offense.
With the full complement of Steelers receivers returning, Smith-Schuster wants to move around on the field and focus on playing more outside. If that happens, Smith-Schuster believes Ray-Ray McCloud could step up and fill the inside spot.
"You'll probably see more of him playing slot this year and more inside," Smith-Schuster said. "He's the guy who fits the position second best and everyone else is just learning it as they go. As far as third-down plays, I still don't mind playing inside and outside, we have in our formation, how we have it set up, I move around."
With just one more year guaranteed in Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster is doing whatever he can to attract the big offers next free agency. But that doesn't necessarily mean he'll leave the Steelers.
"I think to come back for another four more years and have nine years as a Steeler would be tremendous and remarkable," Smith-Schuster said. "It would be unheard of from a receiver standpoint. No doubt. Don't get it wrong. Pittsburgh is definitely still an option on the table, and I know that they'll fight hard and they're one of the teams that have the most cap.
"Then again, there's a lot of people on a one-year deal. You've got to take into consideration that you've got to play your butt off because you never know what's going to happen. And that's how I see it."