As JuJu Smith-Schuster recovers from what is surely a very minor knee injury that he suffered during the Pro Bowl on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver should have plenty of time to reflect on the past year that was, as well as that which is to come.
While I might not necessarily describe his ascent as meteoric, it is not far from it. The 2017 second-round draft pick gradually introduced himself to the nation over the course of his rookie season that year, particularly in the second half of the season, before earning a full-time starting role in 2018.
He turned that into a 111-reception, 1426-yard, seven-touchdown campaign. The reception and yardage totals rank inside the top five in Steelers history, with the bulk of the numbers ahead of him belonging to Antonio Brown. Only Hines Ward’s 112-catch season is ahead of him outside of Brown.
It was a performance good enough to earn himself a trip to the Pro Bowl as a wide receiver in just his second season in the NFL, something that not even Brown could claim. While the latter did have a 1000-yard receiving season in his second year, and he made the Pro Bowl, that distinction came rather for his 1000 yards in kick and punt returns in 2011.
But Brown and the Steelers are at an impasse, out of which there is no clear resolution. Until Brown makes a move toward reconciliation, the assumption is that the two parties are headed for a separation via trade come the start of the new league year.
That would mean that Smith-Schuster will inherit the role of the team’s number one receiver, something that some might argue he already fulfilled at times this past season, but he didn’t spend many snaps on the field making plays when Brown wasn’t also out there. Getting the targets and actually playing without one of the best players in the NFL alongside you are different.
That doesn’t mean he’s afraid of the challenge. “It’s a responsibility every receiver loves to have”, he acknowledged while he was down in Orlando at the Pro Bowl about the as-yet hypothetical possibility of him being the Steelers’ top target should Brown be traded.
He is very aware of the fact that “defenses would change versus me” if Brown was not out there for a full season, though there was minimal to no difference in the way the Cincinnati Bengals defended him in the season finale as Brown was AWOL. And “obviously somebody else would have to step up” to fill the number two shoes.
Still, the 22-year-old is mostly spending his contemplative moments appreciating where he is. “I never thought I’d be here this far”, he said. “I’m always hungry, always want more”. As he comes off his first Pro Bowl, he could be served as much as he can handle in 2019 depending upon how the next month and a half goes.