The Pittsburgh Steelers received some criticism in 2017 when they used a second-round draft pick on JuJu Smith-Schuster, at the time just 20 years old and with no clear spot for him to play behind Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and others.
Even I was a part of the early confusion as to why such a high draft pick at wide receiver was needed when the team had had so much success in later rounds adding to the position and keeping things going. But after 169 receptions for 2343 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first 30 games, nobody is doubting whether or not he was a good investment anymore.
And that was even before his stellar second season, which Ben Roethlisberger reminded. During his radio appearance yesterday, he talked about how he was always asked heading into 2018 what Smith-Schuster had to do to be able to build on his rookie year.
He talked about how he went into every meeting room at the end of the season to talk to everybody and thank them and talk to them about their season and their future. ”I went to the receiver room and kind of said a little something to each guy, you know, what I thought they did well and how proud I was of all them”.
Then he talked specifically about what he said to Smith-Schuster. “I told JuJu—in front of everybody—I said, people asked me coming into this year, JuJu, what I thought it was gonna take for you to improve on your rookie year”.
“I think anybody that comes into this league as a first-year guy can kind of really make a splash”, he went on. “Not everybody, but if you’re really a talent, you can make a splash. And a lot of the times it’s because people don’t know about you. They don’t know who you are, there’s no tape on you”.
Emerging from a shared number three role to a full-time starter by the time the 2017 season ended, Smith-Schuster was able to post 58 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie. He built heavily upon that in year two, which was a question.
“And I said the biggest challenge for JuJu is, how’s he going to respond to a great rookie year?”, he asked. “What he did is he worked his butt off, did everything we asked him to, moved positions, moved him around different positions on the field, and went and had in my opinion a Pro Bowl year. I mean, he put up unbelievable numbers and did it as not a surprise. So I said, now JuJu, you’re not surprising anybody next year, so the challenge is going to be how to you respond to this year?”.
Even though teams knew who Smith-Schuster was this past year, they also still knew Antonio Brown, and the second-year pass-catcher knows as well as anyone how much he benefitted from the latter’s presence. People are still doubting what he can do without Brown, so that will be the next challenge for him to undertake in proving himself as one of the top receivers in the game.