Prior to the Pittsburgh Steelers releasing their first ‘official’ depth chart of the season, which listed rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster as their first-team kick returner, Dave Bryan wrote an article speculating about the possibility of the second-round pick being a prime candidate to see the inactive list early in the season.
It is a reasonable suggestion, after all, especially for a young player who was injured no fewer than four times from the first day of training camp to the third preseason game. But I disagreed at the time, even before the depth chart came out, and here’s why: he’s a player on special teams.
The Steelers didn’t give him a lot of work on offense during the preseason finale, but they did showcase him on special teams, and he played the entire game serving as a jammer on the punt return unit. He did so consistently pairing with cornerback Dashaun Phillips.
I want to digress and point out Phillips’ play here because this is really why they brought him in. Not only did Phillips play, but he played well as a jammer, and he also served as a gunner for most of the preseason finale. He is an active and positive member of the special-teams unit, and it would not at all be surprising if at some point in the season we see him called up to the 53-man roster to play special teams if there is an injury.
But anyway, this is about the rookie, Smith-Schuster, and the fact that he could have a bigger role on special teams beyond potentially returning kicks, which is why I expect him to dress on Sundays rather than the veteran Justin Hunter.
While he did not get any work as a gunner on special teams during the preseason—at least that I was able to notice, and I looked—he did get this work as a jammer, and he did well in that capacity. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Dave compiled a video breakdown for me of his jammer snaps against the Panthers.
It goes without saying that preseason broadcasting makes this a difficult evaluation, and some more than others requires some extrapolation, but there is a lot to like here. Even the one snap in which the vice jammers allow the gunner to get depth, Smith-Schuster ended up blasting him beyond the returner. The video pretty much speaks for itself, I think.