Rookies don’t always have the easiest time to start off their NFL careers. While there are usually a handful of players who are able to have success right off the bat—some of whom end up falling off the map afterwards—for most teams, they’re counting on seeing that growth in year two or year three.
That’s a critical spot for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster, as they have five starters who are second- or third-year players as draft picks, and that is not even including slot cornerback Mike Hilton. Last year’s top two picks, T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster are already starters and will play an even bigger role in the Steelers’ success for failure in 2018.
Smith-Schuster in particular is coming off an impressive rookie season, posting several 100-yard games and authoring some big plays. He picked up 58 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games, spending much of that time outside of a starting role.
And former wide receiver Nate Burleson thinks he is one of the top second-year players in the NFL heading into 2018, ranking him sixth on his top 10 list for the league’s website. He is the only wide receiver on the list, the bulk of which focuses on offensive players.
“There’s a lot to like about this kid. He made big contributions to a Steelers offense already full of talent. JuJu led all rookie receivers in receiving yards (917) and receiving touchdowns (seven) last year, and he moves up the depth chart with the departure of Martavis Bryant”, Burleson wrote. “The No. 2 receiver spot is perfect for the second-year wideout as JuJu should get more touches with Antonio Brown garnering most of the attention opposite him”.
One of the most surprising qualities of Smith-Schuster’s rookie season is the fact that he proved to be a successful deep target. Though he was able to do that in college, many questioned how that would translate to the NFL given that he does not have elite speed. Yet he averaged nearly 16 yards per reception despite getting a lot of underneath work. He had at least 15 yards per catch in seven of the 13 games in which he had a reception.
But he will be taking on a bigger role full-time this year, and the transition could be more difficult than anticipated. I’m hoping he doesn’t think the NFL is suddenly easy because he found such success early on. Not to say we’ve seen signs of that kind of attitude from him.
Realistically though, they’re counting on James Washington to come in and have success, and if he doesn’t, that’s going to make things harder for everybody. Bryant didn’t put up the results he was supposed to, but he still commanded the defense’s attention. Has Smith-Schuster earned that yet? Washington certainly hasn’t.