As free agency approaches, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said wants to stay in Pittsburgh.
Whether the Steelers give him the option, or make the decision for him with the franchise tag, is still to be determined.
In a messy salary cap situation that includes a veritable "I-O-U" to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the form of a massive paycut, the Steelers are facing long odds to keep their roster intact.
Smith-Schuster, 24, could be given the franchise tag but the Steelers must be under the operating threshold of the projected $180 million salary cap for 2021.
The franchise tag would cost the Steelers at least $16 million based on projections the NFL is using for position-specific tags. The deadline to use the tag is March 9, which is days before the official start of free agency March 17.
"Until I actually get let go, other than that, I'm Pittsburgh for life," Smith-Schuster told TMZ.
"To be home close to family would be cool, but at the end of the day, I want to have my legacy in Pittsburgh and retire there," Smith-Schuster said in a TMZ video interview. "I don't want to leave."
The Steelers won't likely be able to offer the kind of "lifetime" contract Smith-Schuster wants. With the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions rumored to be near the front of the line of bidders for the wide receiver next month, Pittsburgh might attempt to use the franchise tag as a negotiating tool to invite trade offers.
The team has a long history of success drafting wide receivers in the second round and beyond under team president Kevin Colbert.
Smith-Schuster was the 62nd pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
But the Steelers developed potential replacements in Diontae Johnson, a third-round pick in 2019, and two recent second-rounders: Chase Claypool (2020) and James Washington (2018).
If the Steelers used the franchise tag and received a late first-round pick in return for Smith-Schuster, a four-year deal for that player would likely be less than the one-year franchise value ($16 million).
For example, the Vikings drafted LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson 22nd overall in 2020. His four-year, $13.12 million contract -- which includes a standard fifth-year option for NFL first-rounders -- looks like a relative bargain when compared to free agent deals.
The Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers could have interest in Smith-Schuster. Their top wide receivers are scheduled to become free agents, but Allen Robinson (Bears) and Chris Godwin (Buccaneers) are also tag candidates.
--Field Level Media