The decision to draft a wide receiver in the second round last year was a head scratcher, at least until JuJu Smith-Schuster started contributing on a weekly basis for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played so well that he earned a full-time starting job by the end of his rookie season, and has taken his game to another level to start his sophomore year.
Right now, he is in the top five in receiving yardage, having gone for over 110 yards in every game so far, and he has 27 receptions with one touchdown. While Antonio Brown does have two touchdowns, Smith-Schuster has outperformed him in every other category and in many ways has become the focal point of the offense.
He had an impressive rookie year, but is a different player in year two—or rather a more polished and professional version of the same. Though that doesn’t change the fact that he is still just 21 years old. He may be wise beyond his years on the football field, but it’s the work he puts in that has put him in the position he’s in now.
“It’s a lot different, the chemistry and the flow”, he told reporters over the week, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Last year, I was out there running around with my head chopped off. This year, I know what to do and where to go. I know all the positions, so it’s very fun for me to be out there”.
It’s the convergence of talent, skill, and experience that sees Smith-Schuster emerging as one of the top wide receivers in the NFL, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that Brown is on the team and is still going to demand a large percentage of Ben Roethlisberger’s targets on any given Sunday.
He also showed Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Chris Conte that he loves to block. “That’s my biggest pet peeve”, he said of wide receivers who are not willing to make their contributions in that area of the game. “You’ve got to be a complete wide receiver and do everything: block down the field, being able to catch the ball and run and score touchdowns”.
Due to circumstances, Smith-Schuster spent a lot of his time last season on the outside rather than in the slot during the second half of the season, but he has been used almost 90 percent of the time in the slot this year, where he has really taken over. Still, he doesn’t view himself as limited to playing there by any means.
“I’m going out there and playing the best I can, whoever is on me—outside or inside, number one or number two—it doesn’t really matter”, he said. “I know my team has got my back. When I go out there, I’m going to do my best to perform”.
Defenses have done their best so far to try to prevent him from performing, but they’re going to have to start trying harder. It’s time they start picking their poison between him and Brown on any given play.