* With the Super Bowl in the past and the 2021 season in the books, NBC Sports Washington's Ethan Cadeaux and Matt Weyrich take a look at potential free agents that the Washington Commanders could benefit from signing this offseason. Next up: examining JuJu Smith-Schuster's potential fit.
At this time in 2021, wide receiver was one of the biggest needs for the then-Washington Football Team. Ron Rivera and his staff made a concerted effort to upgrade the position last offseason, signing Curtis Samuel and Adam Humphries in free agency and using a third-round pick in Dyami Brown.
One year later, the franchise has a new name. But, the Commanders still have that same problem at receiver.
Samuel dealt with injuries all season long and finished 2021 with just six receptions in five games. Brown struggled at times, too, and ended his rookie campaign with just 12 catches. Humphries was the best addition of the bunch, as he proved to be a reliable third-down target for Taylor Heinicke. However, he's due to be a free agent this offseason and there's no guarantee he returns.
So, once again, wide receiver remains a position in need of help for Washington this offseason. Yet, with Samuel's $12.9 million cap hit next season and hopefully -- for Washington's case -- a Terry McLaurin extension, spending big money in free agency on someone like Chris Godwin or Mike Williams might not be an option.
Enter, JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The Steelers wide receiver is just three seasons removed from a 111-catch, 1,400-yard season in 2018, but that sure feels like a lifetime ago. Smith-Schuster has dealt with multiple injuries since then -- most of which he's been able to play through -- and suffered a shoulder ailment this year that cost him all but five games of the regular season.
Don't let the injuries or his infamous TikTok feed fool you, though, Smith-Schuster is as tough as they come in between the lines. Just this past season, he prematurely returned from a dislocated shoulder to play in Pittsburgh's Wild Card game against the Chiefs. Although the Steelers lost, Smith-Schuster's toughness was praised by many of his teammates and fans.
In Washington, Smith-Schuster would slide right into the starting slot receiver role. His size -- listed at 6-foot-1, 215 lbs. -- allows him to physically dominate smaller nickel cornerbacks and be a reliable target for whoever is under center in the short-to-intermediate passing game.
Overall, having someone like Smith-Schuster in the lineup would only benefit the rest of Washington's receiving corps.
Let's start with Washington's true No. 1 in McLaurin. The 26-year-old has proven he can be incredibly effective in the short passing game -- his YAC speaks for itself. But, McLaurin's speed and big-play ability are two of the strongest parts of his skill set. He hasn't been able to showcase that as much the past two seasons, but adding a guy like Smith-Schuster would certainly open up more looks down the field for Washington's standout pass-catcher.
The same thing goes with Brown, too, who led all of college football in contested catches combined over the 2020 and 2021 seasons. That ability didn't exactly translate in the NFL for Brown as a rookie, but adding a sure-handed, talented slot receiver in Smith-Schuster should only open up more looks down the field for big plays.
Additionally, signing Smith-Schuster would also allow Washington to get even more creative with Samuel. In Carolina, Samuel lined up all over the field, whether that was outside, in the slot, or even in the backfield. Having both Samuel and Smith-Schuster on the field at the same time would give offensive coordinator Scott Turner even more versatile pieces to move around and keep opposing defenses off balance.
All this goes without mentioning that Smith-Schuster is still just 25 years old. In fact, he's even younger than McLaurin despite entering the NFL two seasons earlier. Smith-Schuster still has plenty of good football in front of him.
Contractually, Smith-Schuster makes sense for Washington as well. After missing the bulk of 2021, the wideout will likely be offered one-year, prove-it deals from many clubs. Pro Football Focus projects Smith-Schuster to sign a one-year deal worth $8 million, a price tag Washington certainly can afford, especially considering the skill set they'd be acquiring.
Last spring, Smith-Schuster reportedly turned down more money from both the Ravens and Chiefs to remain in Pittsburgh. Both of those squads figure to be in the mix for the wideout once again this offseason, too. And, what both Baltimore and Kansas City have going for them over Washington is that they each have a franchise quarterback. Who Washington will have under center in Week 1 remains a mystery, which is why solving that issue before free agency is a priority.
At this point in his career, Smith-Schuster has proven the ability to put up big numbers in high-profile offenses, but hasn't necessarily been a player who can individually transform an entire unit. So for the wideout, teams like Baltimore, Kansas City, Green Bay and more will likely be more appealing.
Washington still makes a ton of sense for Smith-Schuster, though. And, it's important to note the Commanders can offer him a bigger role in its offense than those other clubs, too. At the very least, inquiring about Smith-Schuster's interest is a must for Washington when the moratorium period to begin free agency starts.
Other Free Agent Targets:
CBs Patrick Peterson, Joe Haden