It would be fair to say that the Pittsburgh Steelers under Head Coach Mike Tomlin had developed a ‘type’ at the wide receiver position that they looked for in the NFL Draft over the years. It evolved a bit over time, sure, and spread more toward size and athleticism, but the names should make it obvious.
Mike Wallace. Emmanuel Sanders. Antonio Brown. Markus Wheaton. Martavis Bryant. Sammie Coates. Now we have JuJu Smith-Schuster, a bit of a trend-buster in Tomlin’s era, but more of a throwback of sorts to an older model.
For the most part, speed and athleticism were defining traits about the above-named wide receivers, but Smith-Schuster wouldn’t necessarily fit neatly into that niche. He is not blazing fast, though he is far from slow-footed. While not at the top of the athletic charts, he is talented enough to get it done.
But he has other qualities that are inconsistently present at best in many, if not all, of those drafted before him. You want somebody who is going to go up and fight for every pass? That’s Smith-Schuster. You want somebody who is going to reliably come down with those passes? That’s Smith-Schuster. You want somebody who is going to do the dirty work without the ball in his hands? That’s Smith-Schuster.
And that was Hines Ward. And that is Anquan Boldin. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last person to link these names with the rookie, but it’s not an association that he runs from by any means. In fact, he embraces it. He told Joe Rutter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “I take it as a compliment” to be compared to wide receivers in that mold.
“Very physical, very strong hands. That’s what I want to bring to the team”, he said. He will be the one to go over the middle and make a tough catch in traffic. Short of Brown, who is willing and able to do pretty much everything but block consistently, Smith-Schuster’s resume entering the league best fits that profile compared to the others named.
Back in May, shortly after he was drafted, he spoke with Missi Matthews for the team’s website in a sit-down interview, talking about what he feels he will be able to bring to the wide receiver room and how he views himself as a player.
“I describe myself as being very physical”, he told Matthews. “Tough. Willing to go across the middle, make some catches in the middle of the field. Willing to dig out players to block. Downfield threat and also an overall player who can bring everything to this team”.
The Steelers have stocked up over the years on one sort of wide receiver in the draft. Smith-Schuster will bring to the table a different and necessary skill set that can help fill a niche in the group’s repertoire that has been lacking. And he is not shying away from that fact.