The 2018 NFL Draft is drawing near, which seems to be a fitting time to take a look back at the rookie seasons of the Pittsburgh Steelers class from the 2017 NFL Draft. People start talking about the quality of a draft class before said class is even completed, of course, but now we have a year of data to work form.
Over the course of the next several days, I will be providing an overview of the team’s rookies, as well as an evaluation of each rookie that the Steelers drafted, while also noting any undrafted free agents that were able to stick around. This will not include the likes of Mike Hilton and Kameron Canaday because they were first-year players, not rookies.
The Steelers went into the 2017 NFL Draft with eight selections, including one in each round at their natural selections, as well as an additional pick in the third round as compensation for the net losses that they were dealt in free agency from the 2016 offseason.
Continuing a recent trend, the class has proven to be top-heavy in terms of early results, though there are still opportunities for those selected by them in the later rounds of the draft to develop into bigger contributors as well.
Player: JuJu Smith-Schuster
Draft Status: 2nd round (62nd overall)
The only people that I ever really see speaking negatively about JuJu Smith-Schuster are the ones who seem to be bigger fans of Martavis Bryant than they are of the Steelers as a whole. Too often, frankly, the conversation turns to one versus the other, when, at least for the 2018 season, it should be both.
Right now, however, we’re talking about Smith-Schuster, the second-round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft by the Steelers. Though several wide receivers went off the board before he was taken, he had the best year of the class, and perhaps the best year by a Steelers rookie wide receiver in team history.
Even though he was limited to 14 games, missing one due to injury and another due to a clearly kneejerk suspension decision, he still posted 58 receptions for 917 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns. All three of those numbers ranked in the top five (maybe even top three) in team history for rookies, with the receiving yards being the most.
In fact, that is the most yardage that a number two target for Pittsburgh has put up in a long time, going back to the 2009 season when both Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward had over 1150 receiving yards.
When the season opened, Smith-Schuster was only rotating with Eli Rogers out of the slot, and did not even get targeted for a pass in the first game. His first target came a week later on a shovel pass at the goal line for his first score.
For the first half of the season, he remained behind Bryant, but when he was benched for Week Eight, Smith-Schuster started and never looked back. He exploded in that game for seven catches, going for 193 yards and the longest receiving touchdown in team history.
He remained as the number two target for the rest of the season in two-receiver sets, even though he missed two games. He put up 114 yards against the Patriots and then closed out the season with 143 against the Browns, adding a kick return touchdown in that one to top everything off.
Unfortunately, he was rather quiet in the postseason loss, despite catching a meaningless touchdown with no time remaining. During his biggest moment in the game, on a fourth-down incompletion, he was interfered with, but no flag was thrown.
Smith-Schuster’s rookie season was an impressive one, make no mistake, and his youth made it all the more impressive. His ability to contribute as a run-blocker, screen-blocker, and as a kick returner on top of everything else further adds to that discussion.
Still, at the end of the day, he is going to have to continue this level of play. He played especially above expectations on deep passes, and I would expect him to regress to a mean of some sorts in that area next season. But there’s no taking away his great start, and I have a hard time imagining that he has anything but a bright future.