As the NFL’s legal tampering period begins on Monday, rumors and reports of players being linked to teams in free agency will pick up pace. The Bears have already made a splash by reportedly agreeing to a deal with defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. But they may not be done yet. Ryan Poles has been linked to JuJu Smith-Schuster, as the team rebuilds its wide receivers room. Signing Smith-Schuster could work for the Bears, but it will have to be on the right deal, and in the right scenarios.
Smith-Schuster was used primarily in the slot, or as Pittsburgh’s “Z” receiver last year. The Steelers used him in motion a lot, too. In fact, the way the Steelers deployed Smith-Schuster last year looked a lot like the way the Bears used Darnell Mooney. Even though their games overlap in a sense, it doesn’t mean the two can’t coexist, since they bring different skillsets to the table. Where Mooney uses quickness to create separation over the middle of the field, Smith-Schuster attacks the same area by using his bigger frame to win contested catches.
Impact players in the slot are important, but they are rarely No. 1 wide receivers. There are exceptions, like Cooper Kupp, but usually when you say “No. 1 WR,” you think of an outside receiver. The addition of Smith-Schuster could help, but it would still leave a big void at the “X” position that the team would need to address. So if the Bears do bring in Smith-Schuster, don’t expect it to be on a big-money deal, or that he will instantly become the top option in their offense. If that is something Smith-Schuster wants in free agency, he may be better served signing elsewhere, too.
Smith-Schuster burst onto the NFL scene with 58 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017, his rookie season. One year later, he was even better, with 111 catches for 1,426 yards and another seven scores. But in 2018, Antonio Brown had forced his way out of Pittsburgh, making Smith-Schuster the focus of every opposing defense. In 12 games, he was only able to produce 42 catches for 552 yards and three touchdowns. Smith-Schuster hasn’t been able to put together a 1,000 yard season since Brown left town, but he did rebound for nine touchdowns in 2020. He only played in five games last season due to a shoulder injury, but he was off to another disappointing start, with only 15 catches for 129 yards and no scores.