BY DAN SCIFO
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made a voluntary pay cut during the off-season.
Roethlisberger’s restructured deal helped the Steelers free enough cash to convince wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to return to the team on a one-year deal. Smith-Schuster decided to stay in Pittsburgh instead of going to a freelance agency, citing a sense of loyalty.
“For me it was more loyalty and staying with the quarterback I’ve played with for the past four years.” said Smith-Schuster.
Smith-Schuster, the 2017 Steelers second-round pick, said he turned down opportunities to play in Baltimore and Kansas City.
“Patrick Mahomes is a great quarterback and he will be for the next decade, but I think it’s just the loyalty to my coaches and my quarterback.” said Smith-Schuster. “If I went to the Ravens, I would still have loyal fans (in Pittsburgh), the rivalry is great and the fans would destroy me. The Chiefs have a great offense, they can play with Tyreek (Hill) and Travis (Kelce) but at the end of the day I have to do the best for myself and that is to stay at home. It makes everything easier for me to go into the next year, and the free agency next year is much better. “
Smith-Schuster, who signed an $ 8 million deal, said staying in Pittsburgh also made financial sense. The salary cap is expected to take a significant jump next year after being lowered in 2021. Smith-Schuster said there could be more lucrative opportunities if it goes public next spring. He hasn’t ruled out a long-term return to Pittsburgh either.
“Everything was different with the low upper limit” said Smith-Schuster. “Next year is of course a year when the cap will get better. This year I just have to go out there and do what I have to do and tape things to make my worth even better. “
The 24-year-old Smith cobbler was a Pro Bowl selection in 2018. He is the only NFL player since the AFL and NFL merged in 1970 to have recorded at least 250 receptions, 3,300 yards and 21 touchdowns prior to his 24th birthday.
Last season, Smith-Schuster was one of the NFL’s top receivers from the slot. This season he wants to play more outside.
“If you can play outside, you add more to your craft.” said Smith-Schuster. “In my sophomore year, the best year I’ve had as a Pittsburgh Steeler, I played more outside than inside. It just adds another threat, and with Ben you don’t know where the ball is going. “
Smith-Schuster set career marks in 2018 with 111 receptions and 1,426 yards. Last season he finished fifth in the AFC and ninth in the NFL with 97 catches. Smith-Schuster, who finished with 831 yards, tied with nine touchdowns in his career as fourth in the conference and ninth in the league. He finished second in the NFL on third-down receptions and finished second on third-down catches that resulted in a first down.
“I try to lead by example” said Smith-Schuster. “I don’t say much, and when I do, it’s rare. I’ll leave that to Ben and a few other guys to speak for the team. “
Smith-Schuster still leads a broad recipient group who is a strength of the offensive. Roethlisberger will be playing his 18th season behind a revamped offensive line as the Steelers attempt to improve on a running game that last ended up rushing in yards in the NFL in 2020.
“We have some weapons and the chemistry is already right” Smith-Schuster said of the recipients. “We had guys who had been on the team for two or three years.”
Diontae Johnson led the team for 923 yards last season, while Chase Claypool set league and franchise records as a rookie. James Washington is a former second-round pick, tight end Eric Ebron hit five touchdowns, and Ray-Ray McCloud was also a special teams ace, ranking in the league’s top 10 on kickoff and punt return averages.
Claypool said Smith-Schuster played a significant role in its development.
“JuJu looks great and is getting better every year” said Claypool. “He’s a good leader, he’s a fun guy, and he’s relatable. I rely on him when I need a good laugh or advice. “
Smith-Schuster wants to continue and develop into his fifth NFL season and make another impact in the free agency in the off-season.
“I have to play my ass because I don’t know what’s going to happen next season.” said Smith-Schuster.
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