One of the few things that the Pittsburgh Steelers have pretty much always been able to rely upon over the course of the past couple of decades has been the ability to find quality wide receivers. While there have been some arguable lapses due to free agency departures and injuries or suspension—such as in 2005 and 2016—for the better part of that time, they have consistently fielded some of the best receivers in the league.
That has especially been true over the past decade under Head Coach Mike Tomlin, quickly recovering from the early dud of second-round pick Limas Sweed, he followed that up with Mike Wallace in 2009, and then a pair of stars in Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. All three continue to be starters in the league.
By 2012, Brown was a full-time starter, running with Sanders as his number two, who would go on to make Pro Bowls with the Denver Broncos. That would be the top pairing for the next two years before Markus Wheaton and then Martavis Bryant emerged.
And now there is JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has 85 catches for 1273 yards and eight touchdowns over his past 16 regular season games, going on four straight 100-yard games. People are already asking Brown if the second-year man is the best wide receiver he has ever paired with in his career.
“You guys make that assumption”, he told reporters. “We’ll see”.
The standards by which the question is to be judged do need to be qualified. If you’re answering it right now, and using a player’s entire career, and now just basing it on his time working with them, then the fair answer would have to be Sanders, even though he never broke out during his four years in Pittsburgh.
But Smith-Schuster is just 17 games into his career—having missed two in his rookie season—and is already making team history. He put up just about the best rookie season a wide receiver has ever had in Pittsburgh, and going for over 100 yards in four straight games has only been done now five times with the Steelers. Brown has done it twice.
Assuming that he continues to play on a roughly similar level, how long must we wait before we decide to call him the best wide receiver Brown has ever paired with—before we determine that this is the best duo he has ever been a part of?
I suppose we can wait, at least, until defense begin to start paying more attention to him and less to Brown and see how he does then. But then again, isn’t the very idea of him forcing coverage toward himself and away from Brown merely further evidence of his abilities?