The Pittsburgh Steelers have had tremendous success in drafting wide receivers. Just taking a look at their current roster, the team has a plethora of weapons for Big Ben to choose from. Antonio Brown is by far the leader of the group, as he is the undisputed best wide receiver in the entire NFL right now. But that’s not where things end for the Steelers.
JuJu Smith-Schuster was selected in the second round of the 2017 draft, and he made his first season in the pros count. At the onset of his rookie campaign, most people expected big things from wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who has immense potential in his own right. But for a variety of different reasons, including a lack of commitment on the field, and a set of worrisome situations away from it, the troubled wideout was traded by the team during this year’s draft.
Bryant’s failure to capitalize on his opportunities in the high-powered Steelers offense, played directly to the benefit of Ju Ju, who ran with the team’s second wide receiver job, making people completely forget about the disgruntled Bryant. Despite barely getting any playing time in the first half of the season, the promising wideout put together a campaign that totalled 58 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. But those numbers don’t do him justice. His best game was a mid-season road clash with the Detroit Lions, when he tallied ten receptions for a staggering 193 yards, including a 97-yard touchdown catch that displayed his game-breaking explosiveness.
Ju Ju displayed his great hands and sharp route running abilities throughout the season. Big Ben has publicly mentioned his impressive work ethic, which could lead to the receiver having an even bigger role, particularly in the wake of the long-standing holdout by superstar running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell commanded 106 targets in 2017, which would be a lot for anyone, let alone a running back. While it is likely that the two sides work out their disagreements before the start of the season, nothing is guaranteed. If bell sits out the start of the season, Ju Ju could be the biggest beneficiary of those Big Ben targets.
Moreover, Smith-Schuster has been working with Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown all offseason, being groomed to take over the second most consistent role in the passing game. At just 21 years of age, he has a lot of room to develop and soak up all that he can from his veteran teammates.
The fact that he plays on the opposite side of the field from Brown, should only help him to become a statistical beast. AB commands a lot of defensive attention by default, and for good reason. He can break through even the best double-coverage in the league, so leaving him one on one with a cornerback could be detrimental to the success of opposing defenses.
It’s always possible that the second-year receiver hits a sophomore slump, but based on his performance from this preseason so far, it seems rather unlikely. In the first game, he flashed his big play ability again, scoring a first-quarter 71-yard touchdown from backup quarterback Landry Jones. He also scored a red zone touchdown in the second game, this time from rookie quarterback Mason Rudolph.
Smith-Schuster could be ready to take the next step toward the upper echelon of NFL wide receivers. He is certainly in the right place to achieve that in Pittsburgh’s high-scoring offense. Whether that translates into the regular season remains to be seen. Still, there seems to be too much going in his favor to not have an even better season than the one he had in 2017.