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A JuJu Smith-Schuster trade would solve Packers’ receiver need now and in the future

Brian Gutekunst couldn’t find the right value at receiver in the NFL draft, but the perfect fit for the team already plays in the NFL. He’s a young, dynamic receiver in Pittsburgh where his team appears ready to move on.

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Indianapolis Colts v Pittsburgh Steelers
JuJu Smith-Schuster, still just 23, would help the Packers in 2020, and will still be good when Jordan Love takes over.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

After drafting Jordan Love in the first round, every move the Green Bay Packers make reverberates through their future. How does it help the team now? And can it help the team in the future? Striking that balance never came easy for Ted Thompson, particularly in the later years of his tenure where he struggled to build a team solely through the draft. Brian Gutekunst demonstrates a willingness to use every avenue to improve the team, and even after missing out in the draft at receiver, he could find the next young star Packers receiver already plays in the NFL.

And he could be available right now.

In The Athletic on Friday, long-time Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette reiterated previous suggestions the Steelers would not re-sign 23-year-old receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Smith-Schuster broke out as a rookie with 917 yards on 58 catches in only seven starts and 14 total games. With Antonio Brown feuding with the team in 2018, he saw a massive second-year jump to 111 catches for 1,426 yards in a more featured role. At 22 years old, he was a burgeoning star, with a social media following for his dog that would make most influencers call their manager to complain. But last season, injuries and poor quarterback play took their took, causing Smith-Schuster’s worst year as a pro.

Failing to put up numbers with Mason Rudolph and *checks notes* Duck Hodges wouldn’t otherwise be a red flag, but combined with the injuries, such questions elevate the risk profile. And if he’s not a true No. 1 receiver — remember his terrific ‘18 season came next to Brown putting together a monster season of his own — can Pittsburgh really afford to pay him top-of-market money?

Steelers GM Kevin Colbert’s actions say he’s far from sold. After drafting the former USC star in 2017, Pittsburgh, one of the best teams in the league evaluating receivers, took James Washington in the 2018 second round, Diontae Johnson in the 2019 third round (though at 66 overall), and Chase Claypool in the second round last month.

Smith-Schuster’s agent Kim Miale, a nascent powerhouse at Roc Nation Sports, will want to get him that Amari Cooper deal, whether he’s worth it or not. From that standpoint, it’s easier to see why Pittsburgh may be ready to move on. More to the point for the Packers purposes, the Steelers feature a championship caliber defense right now. Trying to make a Super Bowl push with a wide open AFC in the last year of JuJu’s deal makes the most sense for the team. They’re more likely to ride the wave for one more year, let him walk, and take the compensatory pick.

If Green Bay wanted him before he hit free agency, that benefit would not only allow them to negotiate a long-term deal before anyone else, but also give Brian Gutekunst the chance to use the franchise tag if necessary. The obvious main appeal would be giving Aaron Rodgers an elite secondary target for a Super Bowl push of their own.

Age makes Smith-Schuster uniquely appealing for both the immediate and long-term build of this team. Coming into the league as a 20-year-old rookie, having walked into the Pac-12 at 17 whipping cornerbacks, Smith-Schuster will be 23 this season, meaning a four-year deal would position him to make at least one more big pay day in his athletic prime. That aligns with the Packers vision for the Rodgers-led Packers, while providing for Jordan Love once he’s given the keys to the car.

Walking into a situation with Davante Adams and another outstanding receiver puts Love in a position to succeed right away assuming he’s ready. Help the Packers make a final push with Rodgers, while setting up the future franchise quarterback; that’s the goal of any move for the Packers now.

The operative question is cost. Presumably the Smith-Schuster side will want a new deal with any trade, and the Steelers will want a premium to give up their own chance at trophy run this year. The latter issue is a much bigger sticking point to a deal getting done in reality.

Setting aside trade cost for the moment, a new deal would be potentially problematic for Green Bay. Last April, the Vikings gave Adam Thielen a four-year, $64 million contract to be a 1a (or 1b.) to Stefon Diggs. Kansas City gave Sammy Watkins $16M annually to be the 1b to Tyreek Hill, a contract that only lasted one year. That’s where Smith-Schuster belongs in this conversation.

Russ Ball doesn’t have the money to do that in 2020, at least not at the moment. Long-term, it makes sense to prioritize the young, talented receiver over say Aaron Jones or even potentially Kenny Clark, though the latter would leave Green Bay perilously thin upfront. Particularly given the injury history and the short track record, it might be too much to consider for Green Bay. If COVID-19 causes a significant loss in revenues in 2020, the cap drops and the Packers face filling a roster with even fewer resources.

That said, they could make an extension work this year by keeping the first-year cap low, and pairing a contract with a veteran cut like Corey Linsley, freeing up $8.5 million on the cap. Keep Lane Taylor as a swing interior player with Lucas Patrick taking over the starting center job and Green Bay can keep on rolling. Rookies Jon Runyan Jr. and Jake Hanson offer additional depth and in the case of Runyan in particular, possible longer-run solutions inside.

It’s also worth noting Adams’ contract is up after 2021 as well, and Smith-Schuster would provide a level of protection, as well as leverage for those negotiations.

If necessary, Smith-Schuster’s arrival could, in a worst-case financial scenario, hasten the departure of Rodgers. Moving on from him in a trade after 2021 would leave over $17 million in dead cap, but would also clear more than $22 million in salary cap room. In a perfect world, that move isn’t necessary and the Packers are competing for titles in 2022 with Rodgers, but it’s at least worth considering in terms of the team’s potential break-in-case-of-emergency options. Getting another receiver would also theoretically make it easier to believe in Love as the future assuming he looks to be making progress the next two seasons.

So what would a trade look like? DeAndre Hopkins just went for a second-round pick and a broken down running back. Odell Beckham went for a first, third, and a talented young player. They were both under contract when they were dealt however. Hayden Hurst, a former first-round tight end, went for a pick swap earlier this offseason with a net value around an early third.

Letting Smith-Schuster walk would net out a third-round comp pick in 2022, so any deal would have to start above there. Considering the Packers will likely be very good in 2020 with JuJu, their second will not be particularly appealing on its own and with the coronavirus threatening the college football season, draft picks in 2021 likely won’t have the same value as in other years with more certainty. More likely, it would take a second, an additional pick, and potentially a player.

Would a second, plus a fifth and Josh Jackson be an appealing package? Pittsburgh’s defense shined last year, but Joe Haden can’t play forever and Jackson fits the Steelers’ coverage preferences more than the Packers’. What about a straight up swap with Aaron Jones? Steelers would get to compete now with a star back plus get the chance to keep him over James Conner, plus still get the comp pick if he leaves in free agency.

There are ways to make it work if Pittsburgh would be amenable to a deal. From the Packers end, almost no price would be too high to pay for the kind of young talent Smith-Schuster would bring. His trajectory aligns beautifully with the team’s, capable of helping them win now and still grow into a future No. 1 with the next quarterback under center in Green Bay. Even if a trade can’t be worked out now, Smith-Schuster will be a name worth watching this time next year for the Packers, particularly if Jones doesn’t sign between now and then.

Getting him now gives Rodgers the added weaponry for 2020 while not allowing a monster season in Pittsburgh to drive up the price in free agency next spring. With Ben Roethlisberger’s future still very much in doubt and the team already seemingly ready to move on from its young talent, the time to strike is now for Gutekunst and the Packers.